Some might say that a dress is just a dress, but when it comes to politics, nothing is ever that simple. While some attention is paid to the suit selections of the president himself, most of the spotlight shines on the choices of the first lady, whose every sartorial decision can be interpreted as a political statement in itself. This is especially true during the inauguration, where a slew of back-to-back events provides the incoming first family an opportunity to set the tone for the next four years in ways both blatant (what they say) and subtle (what they wear).
This has long been the case—Jackie Kennedy is said to have written a 10-page letter to Diana Vreeland begging for her styling insights and was often reprimanded for her pricier tastes—but clothing has grown as a political signpost under the Obamas tenure. As The New York Times once wrote of Michelle Obama’s style, “She has turned the seemingly frivolous into political capital of her own,” by using it to support the overall American economy, the work of young, upstart (and frequently, immigrant) designers, as well as those from the foreign countries she often visited. A 2010 study of her economic impact conducted by New York University even found that the average value added to a brand worn by Mrs. Obama was a cool $14 million, proving that such seemingly frivolous choices can really pay off. High-fashion designers like Narciso Rodriguez and Prabal Gurung have reaped the benefits of this, but Obama has also peppered her wardrobe with more accessible pieces from the likes of J.Crew and Target—a notable move for a woman who entered the White House during a debilitating recession.
However, these choices are not always about economics. In fact, the colors a first lady or female politician wears can offer a host of symbolic interpretations that are not always as simplistic as supporting one party over another (blue for Democrats, red for Republicans). Hillary Clinton famously chose to wear white upon receiving the Democratic Party’s nomination this past year, a nod not just to purity but also to the preferred outfit color of the suffragist movement. When she later conceded the election to Donald Trump wearing a purple suit, it was seen as a gesture toward bipartisanship and unity, given that purple results from a mixture of red and blue.
With the next inauguration right around the corner, you’d be smart to keep all of this in mind when parsing the outfits of both Melania and Ivanka Trump—especially at the Inaugural Ball, where family members and previous first ladies will don show-stopping gowns that will be publicized all over the world (and then sent to the Smithsonian to be preserved). Scroll down to learn more about some of our favorite looks from Inaugural Balls of the past.
For the 1961 inauguration, Jackie Kennedy collaborated on a white gown with Bergdorf Goodman's in-house designer Ethel Frankau that would telegraph the modernity of her husband's presidency.
Lady Bird Johnson paid special attention to the fact that her dress would go into the archives, opting for a simple, canary yellow sheath by John Moore that would stand the test of time.
Pat Nixon also opted for a yellow Inaugural Ball gown (the color is known to signify hope and positivity). Hers was a mimosa silk creation by Karen Stark for Harvey Berin that was embellished with Austrian crystals.
Rosalynn Carter caused quite a stir in 1977 when she opted to re-wear an old chiffon dress of hers to the Inaugural Ball. While some argued that she'd lost an opportunity to champion American business, others saw it as sensitive to the period's recession.
Nancy Reagan took a page from Jackie Kennedy's book in 1981 when she opted for a beaded, one-shoulder white gown designed by the acclaimed James Galanos.
For Bill Clinton's 1993 Inaugural Ball, Hillary sought styling advice from a beloved Arkansas boutique owner, Barabara Baber, and costume designer Cliff Chally. The trio settled on a violet lace gown by little-known designer Sarah Phillips.
For her husband's 2001 inauguration, Laura Bush specifically requested a color that hadn't been worn before when collaborating with Michael Faircloth. The result was a form-fitting crystal-embroidered gown in ruby red.
Bush reprised the ruby red—now a signature of hers—in 2005 when she donned an elegant, shirtdress-inspired Carolina Herrera gown.
For her husband's history-making inauguration, Michelle Obama chose an equally memorable white Jason Wu gown that was both modern and reminiscent of a previous first lady whose values most aligned with hers (Jackie Kennedy).
At the couple's final Inaugural Ball, Obama stunned once more in a custom red Jason Wu gown, further cementing the designer as one of her faves (and increasing his name recognition tenfold).
Which designers would you love to see the new first lady wearing? Let us know in the comments!