The role of the first lady is not clearly defined under U.S. law, and each presidential spouse has charted her own course for the time she has lived at the White House. Inaugural festivities, including official balls featuring dancing, are a customary way the first lady makes her debut to the nation.
At the first inaugural ball in 1809, President James Madison’s wife, Dolley Madison, set a precedent by choosing American attire — a buff-colored velvet gown and pearl jewelry — instead of wearing diamonds like a queen.
“She purposely created an American wardrobe, an American style, that was appropriate” for her time and culture, which disdained royalty, said Jane Hampton Cook, an author and presidential historian.
Melania Trump, a former fashion model, is expected to make her own strong statement with fashion. The Slovenian-born Trump will be the second first lady to be born abroad, after London-born Louisa Adams, and is likely to bring art and glamour to the White House, Cook said.
“She is uniquely positioned because she is a former model, so she understands fashion very well and how to use it to create a certain image,” Cook said.
In her first formal appearance as First Lady, Melania Trump looked stunning in an off-the-shoulder Hervé Pierre gown. The former model collaborated with the designer on her bespoke ensemble for the Inaugural Ball on Friday evening.
The First Lady’s Inaugural Ball gown is always widely reported on and critiqued, and for good reason. It’s her first major style statement in her new role, and it often has significance behind it.
Michelle Obama’s gown in 2009, for example, was a pure white flowing Jason Wu dress, and was widely applauded for perfectly representing the platform of hope that her husband ran on. It has been called one of the most successful Inauguration gowns of all time.
Rosalynn Carter’s gown was much talked-about, too. She chose to re-wear a Mary Matise dress bought off the rack, one she’d worn twice before — including her husband’s inauguration as Governor of Georgia. The Carters were known to be frugal, and as many in the country were struggling financially that year, it was seen as a nod to the American people.
So how did other First Ladies make this ever-important first style statement? From Jackie Kennedy to Hillary Clinton, the fashion choices of these women have long carried significance. See below for the last 50 years of First Lady style.