While the inauguration is the president’s day, often his first lady shines more brightly. Here are the top three most memorable, magical first lady moments from past inaugurations, those that forever changed inauguration traditions and exceeded our wildest expectations.
1. Dolley Madison and the first inaugural ball
The most memorable, magical inaugural moment belongs to Dolley Madison, who started the tradition of the inaugural ball.
The first inaugural dance took place on March 4, 1809, the evening of James Madison’s first presidential inauguration. Tickets were $4. Four-hundred attended, crowding Long’s Hotel on Capitol Hill. The National Intelligencer newspaper called it the most “brilliant and crowded [event] ever known in Washington.”
Former senator John Quincy Adams got in on the fun, though he wrote that “the crowd was excessive—the heat oppressive and the entertainment bad.” Yet he enjoyed discussing poetry favorites with the now-former President Thomas Jefferson, who also attended. Thankfully, the outgoing president’s presence at the inaugural ball was a tradition that didn’t stick.
What did stick was the tradition of the first lady stealing the show. Dolley was truly the belle of the ball. She donned a velvet buff-colored dress “made plain, with a very long train, but not the least trimming, and beautiful pearl necklace, earrings and bracelets.” She also wore “a matching turban with white satin and feather plumes.”
By wearing modest velvet instead of opulent sheer muslin like a princess and pearls instead of queenly diamonds, Dolley proved that the president’s wife wasn’t royalty. She forever defined American good taste and expectations for future first ladies—a balance of elegance and modesty.
President Madison and ex-president Jefferson also made fashion statements. They wore wool suits made in the USA to prove that Americans could depend on their own manufacturing instead of European imports.
2. Helen Taft, the first, first lady to ride in the inaugural parade.
Helen Taft raised eyebrows in 1909 when she became the first, first lady to ride in the inaugural parade with her husband. Previously the outgoing president and the newly-sworn in president rode together in the parade. When outgoing President Theodore Roosevelt announced that he wouldn’t be riding in the parade, Helen stepped in next to her husband, President William Howard Taft, and set a tradition followed by first ladies ever since.
“Since the ex-President was not going to ride back to the White House with his successor, I decided that I would,” she wrote in her memoirs.
“No president’s wife had ever done it before, but as long as precedents were being disregarded I thought it might not be too great a risk for me to disregard this one.” Some members of the inaugural committee objected. “. . . but I had my way and in spite of protests took my place at my husband’s side.”
Led by a mounted police from their native Ohio, they rode in a carriage drawn by four horses. Mrs. Taft wore a broad bonnet called a Merry Widow hat, flanked with white egret feathers. Had her hat not caught on fire the previous day after colliding with a gas-light, her feathers would have been taller than her husband’s top hat. She saved her bonnet by trimming down the feathers, which “exuded a faint odor of burning.” Fortunately this fashion emergency didn’t ruin her shining moment.
“For me that drive was the proudest and happiest event of Inauguration Day. Perhaps I had a little secret elation in thinking that I was doing something which no woman had ever done before.”
Indeed, she set the trend. First ladies have joined their husbands in the inaugural parade ever since.
3. Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady standard for televised inaugurations
Today, aware of the national and international audiences who will watch the ceremony on television and the Internet, the first lady carefully chooses what she wears to the swearing-in.
No one did this better than Jacqueline Kennedy. Though Harry Truman’s inauguration was the first to be televised, the majority of Americans didn’t own a TV until the late 1950s. By the time of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, television watching was the norm.
Jackie embraced the theatrics and visuals of black and white television. She didn’t to want to look like a “fur bearing animal” by wearing a 1950s fur coat. Her designer, Oleg Cassini, understood her concerns. As a Hollywood costume expert, he also knew that men’s suits, women’s furs and jewel-toned dresses would show up dark on black and white television. So he suggested the opposite combination for her.
Jackie embraced his ideas and wore a pale gray-beige wool coat with two oversized buttons and a matching pill box hat. The light color made her pop or stand out on black and white TV among the sea of dark coats, suits and furs.
Cassini called the buttons “a favorite fashion accent of mine. . . on Seventh Avenue, some would call me Mr. Button.”
In keeping with Jackie’s tradition of wearing a suit to the ceremony that looked good on film, Pat Nixon later chose a red coat, which stood out brilliantly on color television, the latest technology. Years later Nancy Reagan’s red pillbox hat and matching “Reagan red” suit also popped on color TV as did Barbara Bush’s white hair and blue coat.
Because Jackie considered white as the “most ceremonial color” she also wore two white inaugural gowns—not too different from Dolley’s buff velvet dress. To the inaugural gala the night before the inauguration, Jackie wore an ivory satin twill gown accented by a white cockade at the waist as a tribute to her French heritage. For the inaugural balls, she designed her own gown and had a New York company make it for her.
“Here is the picture I tore out of some English magazine of what I think I would like the Inaugural Ball dress to be. . . . I imagine it is silver and white with a faille skirt,” Jackie requested.
“. . . I would like to modify the long bodice—so it doesn’t look like a Dior of this season—something more timeless.”
Jackie’s long-lasting approach set the modern standard for elegance, mimicked by other first ladies. Michelle Obama’s first inaugural gown was a one-shouldered, white chiffon ball gown. Nancy Reagan also wore ceremonial white—twice—to the inaugural balls.
Helen Taft established one more first lady inaugural tradition. She became the first to donate her inaugural gown, a white satin beaded beauty, to the Smithsonian Institution. Thanks to her, first ladies have donated their inaugural gowns and other dresses for one of the most popular exhibits in Washington, the first ladies gallery at the National Museum of American History.
Today visitors and Internet viewers can see the exquisite gowns of dozens of first ladies, such as Hillary Clinton’s violet beaded gown, Laura Bush’s ruby red Chantilly lace gown, Barbara Bush’s royal blue gown, Mamie Eisenhower’s pink silk gown embroidered with rhinestones and many more.
When Michelle Obama steps into the inaugural spotlight for her husband’s 2013 inaugural ceremony, parade and balls, she’ll follow in the footsteps of trendsetters Dolley, Helen, and Jackie and others who have made inaugurations distinctly American occasions to be forever remembered and enjoyed for years to come.
Jane Hampton Cook is an award-winning author and a former White House webmaster. The author of nine books her latest is "The Burning of the White House: James & Dolley Madison and the War of 1812." For more, visit her website, janecook.com.