When it comes to black-tie affairs, it doesn’t get much fancier than the presidential inaugural ball. A tradition spanning more than 200 years, this formal, invitation-only event is regularly held on the evening a president is sworn into office to celebrate a new term of leadership—and it typically falls upon the First Lady to set the tone on the fashion front.
While this year’s balls have officially been canceled amid safety concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, First Lady-to-be, Dr. Jill Biden, and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris are still expected to debut inevitably chic ensembles during a 90-minute televised special called Celebrating America that will air on January 20 and include appearances and performances from celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, and Jon Bon Jovi.
As we eagerly await the ladies' style choices (Will Dr. Biden join her husband in reportedly selecting classic American designer Ralph Lauren to dress him for the big day? And will Harris opt for a tried-and-true favorite, like Carolina Herrera, or keep things fresh in a breakout designer, like Christopher John Rogers?), we’re taking a look back at all the stunning pieces that the First Ladies have worn before them to the event.
With the establishment of the First Ladies Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, the inaugural ball gown became an immediate symbol of each First Lady's style. Each first lady is asked to donate a dress to represent her in the collection, and it is a tradition that the gowns worn at each inaugural ball are gifted. It was Helen Taft who began this tradition in 1909. A dress belonging to Martha Washington is the oldest in the group, but an inaugural ball worn by Andrew Jackson's niece in 1829 makes up the oldest inauguration dress.
Trust us when we say: These are no ordinary dresses. Some are so gorgeous, in fact, they could easily pass as bridalwear. Below, find 11 inaugural ball gowns throughout history that could totally double as wedding dresses.
Helen Louise Herron Taft
Helen Taft set a standard for future first ladies when she donated the gown she wore to her husband William Howard Taft's inauguration to the Smithsonian Collection. Designed by the Frances Smith Company, the silk chiffon gown featured floral embroidery in metallic and beading throughout. Her statement set another precedent of first ladies wearing an American designer for their inaugurations.
Eleanor Roosevelt said “I do” to this simple-yet-stunning silk crepe Sally Milgrim evening gown for her first foray onto the inaugural ball scene in 1933. Detailed with a leaf-and-flower design in gold thread, this chic design has stood the fashion test of time.
With more than 2,000 rhinestones covering its bodice, a daring plunging neckline and a full, sweeping skirt, Mamie Eisenhower’s 1953 blush pink Nettie Rosenstein inaugural dress was a bride-worthy creation, indeed.
Pat Nixon was Second Lady when she wore this white, beaded high-neck piece with baby blue tulle at the sides, but her dress was every bit as lovely as First Lady Mamie Eisenhower's—and every bit as bridal, too.
Jackie Kennedy was a fashion icon through and through, and her 1961 inaugural ballgown certainly didn’t disappoint. Created by Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Custom Salon, the sleeveless, off-white number with a silk chiffon bodice was actually created from “sketches and suggestions” made by the First Lady herself, according to the Smithsonian.
Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson
For Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 inaugural ball, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson opted for a soft, jonquil yellow with double-woven satin by New York designer John Moore that she reportedly picked up at a Neiman Marcus in Texas. Set off by a bateau neckline, a pearl necklace, and a pair of arm-length white gloves, this dress is giving us major bridesmaid vibes.
Nancy Reagan could have just as easily have been a blushing bride as a First Lady while attending the 1981 festivities of husband Ronald Reagan in an über-glamorous beaded white lace ballgown over silk satin by James Galanos. She paired the one-shouldered piece with matching elbow-length gloves, beaded David Evins pumps, and a Judith Leiber clutch.
The former presidential hopeful wowed at both of husband Bill Clinton’s inaugurations in 1993 and 1997, but it was the second, bridal-esque Oscar de la Renta dress she donned for the 1997 ball that truly made us stop in our tracks. The gold floor-length number with a sheer beaded lace overlay was a sight to behold—especially when paired with her elegant chignon.
For her husband’s second term in office in 2005, First Lady Laura Bush was a vision in a sparkly, icy blue tulle dress. Ornate and feminine, this masterpiece-come-to-life undoubtedly received a touch of bridal handiwork from couture designer Oscar de la Renta.
Of all the inaugural dresses we’ve seen throughout history, Michelle Obama’s 2009 Jason Wu ensemble is the one that most closely mirrors a wedding gown. Made of white silk chiffon with organza flowers and Swarovski crystals throughout, this one-shoulder creation was one for the ages. The former First Lady topped the look off with a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes and dangling baubles from Loree Rodkin.