17 photos of the stunning inaugural ball gowns worn by first ladies over the last 50 years

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Michelle Obama donates her 2009 inaugural gown to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
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Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, will attend three official balls in celebration of his inauguration Friday, though there will also be many official balls held around Washington.

Inaugural balls are a long-standing American tradition. The black-tie events that celebrate the new first family have been conducted since the time of George Washington, and they only paused during World Wars I and II and the Great Depression.

The ball is also a first lady’s moment to step out, demonstrate her style, and set the tone for her role in the White House. Everything about her outfit, including the color and designer choice, will be critiqued, analyzed, and eventually memorialized as part of the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Below, see 17 photos of gorgeous inaugural ball gowns from 12 first ladies, beginning with Helen Taft, the first to donate her dress to the Smithsonian.


First lady Helen Taft gladly supported the establishment of the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection in 1912. The first to donate her inaugural ball gown, Taft began the tradition of having these dresses archived and put on display.

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Helen Taft’s inaugural gown on display.
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Library of Congress

However, due to the Great Depression and World Wars I and II, it wasn’t until 1949 that another inaugural ball was held. Bess Truman wore a black velvet dress, and it was reported that music played until 2 in the morning.

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Bess Truman, far left.
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Source: The New York Times


Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to celebrate his election with not one, but two inaugural balls. In 1953, first lady Mamie Eisenhower’s inaugural ball gown was a light pink peau de soie gown with more than 2,000 rhinestones sewn into it. A week before the event, Mamie released photographs and descriptions of the dress to the press.

Source: The Joint Congressional Committee


First lady Jacqueline Kennedy was highly aware of how influence and status are part of fashion. For the 1961 inaugural ball, she helped design her own outfit with designer Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Custom Salon. The outfit included an exterior cape.


Beneath that was a silk chiffon sleeveless top over an off-white strapless satin-weave fabric, which was embroidered with silver thread.


Lady Bird Johnson wore a long yellow gown and coat with fur lining by American designer John Moore to the 1965 inaugural ball. The New York Times reported that the Johnsons danced to the song “The Way You Look Tonight.”

Source: The New York Times


Pat Nixon also chose the color yellow for her dress for the 1969 inaugural ball. Designed by Karen Stark for the line Harvey Berin, the dress was worn to the Smithsonian Institution — which hosted one of the balls — and was later donated to their collection.


Instead of a black-tie ball, President Carter hosted the “people’s inaugural parties,” creating a less formal atmosphere with a more affordable ticket price of $25. In light of that theme, first lady Rosalynn Carter wore a six-year-old dress that she had previously worn to her husband’s inauguration ceremony as governor of Georgia.

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Peter Bregg/AP

Source: The New York Times


The 1981 inaugural celebrations for President Ronald Reagan were called the “most lavish” in American history by The New York Times. Nancy Reagan wore a one-shouldered gown designed by James Galanos, whose garments were made for high-profile clients.

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Image Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Source: The New York Times


For the 1985 celebrations, first lady Nancy Reagan again wore a Galanos design.


First lady Barbara Bush wore a dress designed by Arnold Scaasi for the 1989 inaugural ball. Scaasi, who had been designing clothing worn by first ladies since Mamie Eisenhower, called this two-tone gown “Barbara blue.”

Source: The LA Times


For the 1993 inaugural ball, first lady Hillary Clinton wore a dress designed by the little-known, Manhattan-based designer Sarah Phillips. A fan of her work, Clinton asked Phillips to begin creating sketches for the dress before President Bill Clinton had even won the election.

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Shayna Brennan/AP

Source: The New York Times


In 1997, a record number of 14 inaugural balls were held for President Clinton. This time around, Hillary Clinton went with a gown designed by well-known designer Oscar de la Renta.

Source: The Joint Congressional Committee


For the 2001 inaugural ball, first lady Laura Bush represented her home state with a gown made by Dallas-based designer Michael Faircloth.

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Pool/Getty Images

In 2005, Laura Bush wore a silver gown outlined with Austrian crystals by Oscar de la Renta.

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

First lady Michelle Obama kept her dress choice a secret from both the press and the gown’s designer, Jason Wu, until the evening of the inaugural ball in 2009. Wu had designed the white silk chiffon dress with the idea that it symbolized hope. Fashion journalist Kate Betts compared the gown to a wedding dress, its white color representing a new beginning.

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Source: The National Museum of American History, Fashionista


In 2013, Michelle Obama chose another Jason Wu design, which Wu told The New York Times was “an honor.”

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Source: The New York Times