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First ladies' gowns in new home at the Smithsonian

By Sally Holland, CNN
updated 4:44 PM EST, Fri November 18, 2011
First ladies' gowns have been shown at the Smithsonian for 97 years in at least 10 exhibitions. The latest opens Saturday.
First ladies' gowns have been shown at the Smithsonian for 97 years in at least 10 exhibitions. The latest opens Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eight of the 26 dresses in the exhibition are new to the displays
  • "We wanted to balance color and style and time periods," the curator says
  • Michelle Obama's 2009 inaugural gown of white silk chiffon is a centerpiece of the exhibit

Washington (CNN) -- From bustles to silk chiffon with organza flowers and Swarovski crystals, the newly updated first ladies exhibition at the National Museum of American History is an extravaganza of frills and fashion.

The first ladies' gowns have been shown at the Smithsonian for 97 years in at least 10 separate exhibitions, the latest of which will open to the public on Saturday.

Eight of the 26 dresses in "The First Ladies" exhibition are new to the display, as the curators work to rotate in different dresses in an attempt to extend the life of the collection as a whole.

Light, climate and gravity are harmful to fabric. Taking them off display can help keep the gowns in good condition "so that this almost hundred-year-old show, the thing that your grandmother brought you to, your granddaughter can bring her granddaughter to come and see," said curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy.

"We wanted to balance color and style and time periods and some things that hadn't been out before," said Graddy. They also wanted to focus on first ladies who had a strong fashion presence, she added.

Edith Carow Roosevelt\'s dress. Videos and pictures of the first ladies wearing the gowns accompany the display.
Edith Carow Roosevelt's dress. Videos and pictures of the first ladies wearing the gowns accompany the display.
Exhibition Curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy in front of Michelle Obama\'s dress, which is a centerpiece of the exhibit.
Exhibition Curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy in front of Michelle Obama's dress, which is a centerpiece of the exhibit.

The new additions on display include a dark blue, sparkly flapper-style dress worn by Grace Coolidge, and a pink silk brocade gown worn by Dolley Madison.

According to Graddy, first ladies have popularized colors, as Nancy Reagan did with red; they have been praised for their modest and simple attire, like Lucy Hayes; and they have been trendsetting icons, like Jacqueline Kennedy.

"They've also coped with the public interest in their fashion sense, which is a somewhat unexpected part of the job for many first ladies," Graddy said.

Michelle Obama's 2009 inaugural gown of white silk chiffon is a centerpiece of the exhibit. The one-shouldered gown designed by Jason Wu shares a display case with the Jimmy Choo shoes and jewelry she wore with the dress.

Videos and pictures of the first ladies wearing the gowns accompany the dress display at the museum, adding another dimension to the way visitors see the dresses.

In addition to the gowns, "The First Ladies" exhibit includes White House china and other personal possessions of first ladies.

"The first ladies' artifacts make up one of the most enduring and popular collections of the Smithsonian," said Marc Pachter, interim director of the American History Museum.

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