Obama's inaugural gown conveys a nation's optimism

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; C05

Every four years the country has a collective fashion moment. Citizens wait, if not in breathless anticipation, then at least in a state of mildly embarrassed, vaguely fraught curiosity for the first glimpse of a single dress: the inaugural gown.

The fascination thrives on the curiously ill-defined role of the first lady. She is a symbol rather than a salaried employee and so her clothes, her person, take on exaggerated meaning. In modern history, the dress has served as an indication of the sort of White House style that is to come: down-home, a tad regal, somewhat patrician or staunchly middle-of-the-road.

Over the years, however, the message in the inaugural gown has proven to be a bit like a campaign promise -- vague and more idealistic than the cynical world of Washington allows.

Like her predecessors, first lady Michelle Obama will donate her inaugural gown to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. She'll make the presentation Tuesday morning in front of an audience of students from New York's Huntington High School Fashion Program in hopes of inspiring careers in the arts or at least a lifelong appreciation.

Obama's dress, custom-made by New York designer Jason Wu, was unique in several respects, beginning with the youth and relative inexperience of its creator. Wu was only 26 on Inauguration Day, and to some degree, that showed in the dress's not-so-expertly-finessed bodice. The one-shoulder design was revealing and glamorous, a combination that hadn't been seen since Nancy Reagan wore a James Galanos creation to her husband's first inauguration in 1981. Obama's dress was also more romantic than stately: ivory silk chiffon, flowing lines and Swarovski crystals.

The dress -- which goes on public display Wednesday -- suggested a different kind of first lady, one who promised to be more physically self-confident, more of a fashion risk-taker and just a bit more fanciful in her overall style. Much of that has been borne out. Obama has worn an array of unexpected designers. Physically, she has been emblematic of her generation of weight-lifting, active and body-conscious women. And finally, her events have often had an element of the unorthodox to them. Children have been invited to official events whenever possible, including the welcoming ceremony for the administration's first state dinner. Obama dressed as a cat for Halloween and brought area children to the White House to trick-or-treat. And she hula-hooped and jumped rope during a health fair there.

But the dress also reflected a naive, youthful effusiveness, a fashion statement that has not been repeated. Obama's most memorable state formalwear has been glamorous and elegant, more streamlined and often black. The inaugural gown was frothy and girlish, like something an ingenue would wear for her first red carpet promenade. The dress sweetly reflected the giddy mood of the country in a few yards of silk; it was perfect costuming for a Frank Capra feature.

Now the dress will become part of the First Ladies Collection -- an artifact representing a country's outsize optimism. A reminder of sky-high approval ratings, "Kumbaya" on the Mall and endless possibilities. That intoxicating, cultural celebration was captured in a silk frock. It was one of a kind, never to be repeated and, in hindsight, a bit overwrought. Still, the dress will serve as a lasting reminder of just how fizzy that fleeting moment looked.

Michelle Obama's inaugural gown goes on public display Wednesday at the National Museum of American History as part of a new gallery, "A First Lady's Debut," which will showcase 11 dresses worn by various first ladies. 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. For information, call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.americanhistory.si.edu.

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