Inauguration Day is turning out to be even bigger than expected. January 20th, Washington D.C. Have fun!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2017
What makes a ball “official”?
Of the dozens of balls and parties happening in Washington, only official balls — that is, those sponsored by the Presidential Inaugural Committee (or PIC) — are guaranteed destinations for the newly sworn-in president and first lady.
Since it opened in 2003, the Washington Convention Center has become the site of the official parties — President Obama held six of his 10 balls there in 2009 and all three of his 2013 soirees. This year, the PIC is sponsoring two balls there and a third at the Building Museum for veterans, service members and first responders. (The PIC raises the money to throw them; this time, Trump’s team has $90 million to spend on the inaugural.)
There are dozens of unofficial balls, which are typically held in hotel ballrooms and are often sponsored by state societies, groups that rep their home-state pride in Washington. For example, Texans will be partying at the traditional Black Tie and Boots ball at the Gaylord hotel, where fancy footwear and Stetsons are de rigueur and brisket is on the menu, y’all.
Who gets tickets?
For the official balls, tickets are distributed by the PIC, and they mostly go to donors and supporters. There’s an open market for the unofficial balls, and the sponsors sell them to anyone who wants to attend. Tickets range widely in price: $75 will get you into the Asian Pacific American Presidential Inaugural Gala at the Mayflower, or you could pay $10,000 for a VIP table of 10 to attend the Deplorables Inaugural Ball at the Ronald Reagan Building.
What’s the dress code?
It’s dress to impress. Inaugural balls are still black-tie affairs, despite the trend in recent years among Washington events to adopt a more casual, cocktail-attire edict. The first lady sets the tone, with a gown that’s so significant that it will likely wind up on display at the National Museum of American History.
While fashion watchers are waiting this year to see which designer will dress Melania Trump, the selection of a dress for the high-profile affair has always been fraught. One example? Mindful of the economy, Rosalynn Carter re-wore an off-the-rack gown to her husband’s 1977 inauguration, only to get side-eyed by critics for looking out of date — and not supporting the fashion industry.
What’s the deal with the dance?
It’s a bit like a wedding, where the president and first lady take to the dance floor for some awkward shuffling and G-rated PDA. Some presidents seem to enjoy the ritual (Ronald Reagan had some pretty smooth moves), while others clearly don’t (George W. Bush hammily checked his watch seconds into one of his 2001 inaugural dances). The cutting-the-rug tune varies — often, it’s a slow jazzy number, and Beyoncé famously serenaded the Obamas with Etta James’s signature tune, “At Last,” in 2009.
But pop stars aren’t always the only entertainers: Bill Clinton hopped onstage at one of his 1993 inaugural balls and played saxophone with the band.
So these are pretty swanky affairs, right?
Erm, not exactly. The phrase “cattle call” is often used by ball veterans. For one, you’re not exactly partying alongside the first couple, who typically ditch the room after one song and a quick wave. And good luck finding a drink — the lines at the bars are notoriously long. But at least there are posh canapes, right? Don’t count on it. Attendees at one of the Obamas’ 2013 balls were lucky to score a handful of pretzels and Cheez-Its.