By Charlotte Triggs
February 02, 2009 12:00 PM


It took just two outfits, and a fashion icon was born. First, Jacqueline Kennedy dazzled in a satin Oleg Cassini creation (right) on the eve of her husband’s 1961 Inauguration. (Joe Kennedy was a Cassini fan and paid for the dress.) Then she celebrated her husband’s new position the next day in a chiffon gown (below), of which “the design concept was hers, and she went to the custom salon at Bergdorf Goodman to have Ethel Frankau create it,” says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of the newly reopened First Ladies at the Smithsonian exhibit. “The Kennedys were extremely glamorous,” adds fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave, “and hers are the first really stately Inauguration gowns.” The trains, capes and jewel detailing seem to evoke British coronation robes—fitting, says Cosgrave, as “they were the royal family of America.”


Nancy Reagan “helped bring glamour into Washington,” says James Galanos, who created her one-shouldered gown in 1981. Adds Cosgrave: “This look is everything the Reagan era was: glam, opulent, free-wheeling.” And also, famously, free—an uproar ensued when news broke that Mrs. Reagan accepted the $25,000 gown gratis.


It wasn’t a “red state” thing that inspired Laura Bush to wear this sparkly dress by Dallas designer Michael Faircloth for her husband’s first Inauguration in 2001. “They simply looked at which colors had been worn in past Inaugurations and decided on red, because it hadn’t been done before,” says Graddy.


For her husband’s 1993 Inauguration, Hillary Clinton chose a bold violet gown by little-known designer Sarah Phillips. “Make no mistake. Designers look at what already worked for other Inauguration gowns,” says Cosgrave of the $10,000 dress, which, though intended as a gift, Clinton insisted on purchasing. “This dress has the train of Jackie’s, the sparkle of Nancy’s and the regalness of Barbara Bush’s navy dress.”


This blue velvet-and-satin Arnold Scaasi couture gown helped make Barbara Bush “America’s most glamorous grandmother,” he says. But she almost had an Inaugural doppelgänger. Margaret Hearst owned the same navy gown and planned to wear it that night before Scaasi persuaded her to wear red instead.