The History of First Lady Fashion from Inauguration Day


Throughout history Inauguration Day has always been about swearing in the next president to office, but First Ladies have stolen the show with their tailored suits and glamorous designer dresses. (Photo Courtesy of Public Domain) 

Over the years, many have borne witness to the power and influence that First Ladies exert through their fashion choices, and on Inauguration Day more people watch them closer than ever before.

First Ladies have often been trendsetters — some truly changed fashion history. But before they become fashion icons, they’re officially introduced to the world on Inauguration Day. From making a political statement to putting new designers on the map, inauguration outfits have the ability to set the tone for how the American public — and the rest of the world — will see the First Lady for the next four years.

Since 1789, the fabric, construction, and symbolism behind the clothes they wear on Inauguration Day have played a big role in showing how they will be in office in their upcoming four years. Citizens care so dearly about what the First Lady wears because she is going out and representing America across the country and around the world. 

Here is a brief history of some of the iconic outfits worn on Inauguration Day and the ladies who brought them to life:

Jacqueline Kennedy, 1961

(Photo Courtesy of Public Domain)

America has always regarded Jackie O as one of the trendiest First Ladies in U.S. history. On Inauguration Day for her husband, President John F. Kennedy, she wore a flattering baby blue coat ensemble designed by Oleg Cassini, Halston pillbox hat, and elbow-length gloves, all of which would go on to become huge trends in the ’60s. With her Eurocentric fashions, Jackie Kennedy signaled her plans to infuse the White House with high culture.

In more current inaugurations many have emulated Jackie Kennedy’s iconic aesthetic. People such as former First Lady Melanie Trump, and most recently Katy Perry in her performance during the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. 

Claudia Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson, 1965

(Photo Courtesy of Public Domain) 

Dressed in a bright yellow satin gown and matching fur-trimmed coat designed by John Moore, Lady Bird Johnson evoked the optimism and hope the country needed as it was just over a year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. She gave the day enthusiasm for her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Inauguration. 

In her true sensible fashion, Lady Bird opted for something she felt had a timeless appeal. She was aware her dress would be on display for years to come and made a choice she felt would age well. 

Nancy Reagan, 1981

(Photo Courtesy of Public Domain) 

Nancy Reagan, a Hollywood star before adopting the role as “First Lady”, understood what it meant to have the attention of the public eye. Her appreciation for fashion positioned her as a style maker, typically maintaining fashion-forward styles. 

At Ronald Reagan’s first swearing-in ceremony, Nancy wore a coat and hat in a color unofficially named Reagan red. She later became an icon for the unforgettable color that she was often seen in, representing her great fashion presence and strong sensibility.

Michelle Obama, 2009

(Photo Courtesy of Public Domain) 

First Lady Michelle Obama shocked many when she arrived in the unexpected color, “lemongrass”, to her husband, President Barak Obama’s, inauguration. Not only did she arrive in an unprecedented color, she wore J.Crew gloves, setting the tone that she was a First Lady for the people.

The outfit designer, Isabel Toledo, said in her memoir, “I chose the color ‘lemongrass’ to express an emotion more than a color. I hoped this tone would evoke the idea of rebirth and renewal. This color expressed a warm and a pacific, calming emotion and symbolized a new day.”

Jill Biden, 2021

(Photo Courtesy of Public Domain)

Jill arrived at her husband, Joe Biden’s, swearing-in ceremony wearing a robin’s egg blue coat from the young New York-based label Markarian, created by designer Alexandra O’Neill. This year, the First Lady’s look came with a never-before-seen accessory — a face mask. 

After four years of a White House that mostly patronized European labels, the clothes worn by Biden, Harris and their families telegraphed a Made in America message with pride. The fashion designer choices represented a return to elevating American-made designs and lifted up both young designers and two designers of color.

People in the future will observe this inauguration look as a reminder that despite the celebrations of our new President, there is a pandemic still devastating the country. This year more than ever, viewers relied on the fashion of the inauguration as a powerful tool to convey hope and enlight assurance as we head into a new term of Presidency.  


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