New Historical Exhibit to Dive Deep into First Lady Fashion

Image courtesy White House Historical Association

If you’re a frequent visitor to the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History — this one is for you!

The White House Historical Association, in partnership with New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, will debut a new virtual fashion exhibit in 2023 that takes a look at the women who made fashions for historic first ladies.

“Glamour and Innovation: The Women Behind the Seams of Fashion at the White House,” will explore the work of a diverse group of seamstresses, designers, and couturiers responsible for iconic first ladies’ fashions.

The exhibit highlights eight entrepreneurial women who forged ahead despite racial discrimination and other hardships to demonstrate that American designs could rival popular European high fashion… and designed across the aisle for first ladies of both parties.

“People are always interested in what the first lady is wearing, and what kind of message it conveys,” said MA/MS Costume Studies student Maegan Jenkins, the Historical Association’s first Digital Exhibit fellow.

“With this exhibit, I wanted to move beyond the major fashion houses to tell the lesser-known stories of the women behind some of those dresses and the incredible contributions they’ve made to American history.

“Glamour and Innovation: The Women Behind the Seams of Fashion at the White House” will cover over a hundred years of fashion — beginning with Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker who was born enslaved, and further including:

  • Sally Milgrim, designer of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural gown
  • Nettie Rosenstein, designer of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s 1953 and 1957 inaugural gowns
  • Ann Lowe, designer of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown
  • Ethel Frankau, designer of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s inaugural gown
  • Karen Stark, designer of First Lady Patricia Nixon’s 1969 inaugural gown
  • Mary Matise, designer of First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s inaugural gown
  • Frankie Welch, designer of gowns and scarves for First Ladies Patricia Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter

Their stories will be told through a mix of archival photography, portraits, biographies, and press clippings.

Jenkins gives insight into tastes and preferences, economic considerations of the day, and the relationships built between each designer and first lady. And thanks to its digital format, the exhibit features high-resolution interactive photos with a zoom feature allowing viewers to explore the intricacies of the designs as close as possible.