WASHINGTON – Dresses, china and mementos dating back to days when Americans referred to the first lady as “lady presidentress” or “republican queen” will return to view Saturday at the National Museum of American History, along with Michelle Obama’s dashing inaugural gown as a centerpiece.
The new exhibition “The First Ladies” features 26 dresses and about 160 other objects ranging from Martha Washington’s White House collection to a first look at Laura Bush’s china. It’s the 10th version of the first ladies exhibit in nearly 100 years. The last one closed in October as the museum moves historic objects out of its west wing for a major renovation beginning early next year.
“We knew that it would be unacceptable during the renovation timeframe for the public to go two years without this popular and almost 100-year-old tradition at the Smithsonian,” interim museum director Marc Pachter said.
When it first opened in 1914, the first ladies collection was the first time the Smithsonian Institution gave women a prominent place in history, he said. Every first lady since Helen Taft has followed the tradition of donating her inaugural gown to the collection. Last year, Obama gave the museum her dress designed by Jason Wu.
According to the Smithsonian, the term “first lady” was first used in 1894 by President Zachary Taylor in his eulogy of Dolley Madison. Before that, a variety of other terms were used over the nation’s first 100 years.
The new exhibit examines how first ladies have shaped their roles as the influence of women in society has changed and ponders what will happen when a woman is elected president. Eight dresses and at least 10 other items, including Laura Bush’s state china service, are on view for the first time or the first time in decades as the museum freshens its display and incorporates new stories.
“There is no job description for first lady of the United States,” said Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of the collection. “Each one remakes the undefined and challenging position to suit her own interests, the needs of the presidential administration and the public’s changing expectations of women in general and first ladies in particular.”
Sections of the exhibition are devoted to the first ladies’ impact on fashion, her role as the nation’s hostess, inaugurations and formal events and the changing role over time. Madison, for example, got engaged in politics early by gathering information and talking about public opinion, and Mary Todd Lincoln was criticized for her attempts at patronage.
For decades, first ladies have influenced fashion, whether through popularizing colors like Nancy Reagan’s red or setting trends as with Jacqueline Kennedy or Lou Hoover, who was first to appear in Vogue magazine in a bid to promote American-made clothes.
The public scrutiny of their fashion sense is an unexpected part of the job for many first ladies, Graddy said.
Curators refer to Caroline Harrison’s evening gown, on display for the first time, as “early bling.” The burgundy velvet and gray satin gown is embroidered with a floral gray pearls and steel beads.
For the first time, curators also mixed in mementos and other “secondary objects” along with gowns and china, Graddy said.
There’s a scrap of fabric from Lincoln’s redecoration of the White House parlor, a piece of burnt wood from when the British burned the executive mansion and a copy of the book “Treasure Island” that Edith Roosevelt gave to her son’s friend Charley Taft, the next child who would occupy the White House. She signed it “Charley, from Quentin’s mother,” and Charley took the book to read during his father’s 1909 inauguration ceremony, presumably to keep from getting bored.
“I really wanted it to be about memory,” Graddy said of the revamped exhibit. “My word was always scrapbook. These are the things that people save. These are the things that women especially save, and this is so much a women’s show.”
As the museum plans its renovation of the 120,000 square feet of its west wing exhibit space, there will be a permanent home for the first ladies’ gallery in a larger section devoted to American democracy, Pachter said. There will be floors devoted to the nation’s economy and entrepreneurship, the underpinnings of the political system and culture ranging from music and entertainment to sports.
“We’re going to give people a way to think about the whole of our society and who we are,” Pachter said.
Construction is slated to begin in spring of 2012 and with the wing reopening in late 2014 for the museum’s 50th anniversary.