Traveling to Washington DC two days after what was surely the most important election of my lifetime to date was scary. I’m not going to lie. I heard rallies outside my hotel room all night and passed angry mobs holding signs outside the Trump hotel. But during the day, while Barack Obama met with President-elect Donald Trump inside the White House, the streets were quiet.
I traveled with a small group of editors to the first ladies inaugural dress exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum, and it was only there, in that small, dimly lit room, that I could feel myself starting to relax. The first sign was a poster on the wall that featured a Q&A series: “How will the first ladies collection change when a woman is elected president?” Using the term “when,” not “if,” instilled hope. Then I veered off, where a short film of Michelle Obama donating her Jason Wu gown to the museum was playing.
So Much More Than a Dress
“This gown is one of the most tangible things I have left to remember that day. At the end of the day today is about much more than this gown. It’s also about how with enough focus and determination someone in this room can be the next Jason Wu. Someone can be the next Barack Obama . . . Something you create today can help teach the next generation in a way that nothing else can,” Michelle said at the podium.
Her dress was absolutely one of the most intricate on display, what with its Swarovski crystal embellishments and impeccably organized beading. But these dresses I was admiring, some of which dated back to the 1800s, were not made to make the first ladies feel pretty. Each one signified a new beginning.
“Inaugurations are times of optimism . . . In addition to attending ceremonies and balls, incoming first ladies announce the agendas and special projects they intend to pursue. Some projects are ambitious. Some are traditional. Some may be controversial,” read a sign on the wall.
Just like the fashion choices they make. And it’s true: every first lady was scrutinized for her style, even if she wasn’t viewed as an icon. But it was the choices she made in that suit, the momentous speech she gave in that ballgown, that we’ll remember. If a floor-sweeping dress is one way to preserve these memories, why not learn everything we can about it? Why not try to understand why Michelle wore white or Lady Bird Johnson chose a simple yellow sheath?
The Legacy, The Future
As I traveled around the exhibit, reading about each gown and the woman who wore it, I passed a very young girl staring up at a picture of Michelle and Barack Obama on Inauguration Day. “Who’s that?” her mother asked her, pointing up at a glowing Michelle. “It’s the president! They’re both presidents!” she screamed.
The first female president will not be sworn in on January 20. In fact, the Smithsonian Museum will make space for one more dress as Melania Trump accepts her role as FLOTUS. But until then, let’s consider the takeaways I learned about the first ladies who stood before her.
Each of the facts ahead is proof that these strong women, from Lady Bird Johnson and Jackie Kennedy to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, were compassionate. They thought of function first, then fashion. They embraced the spotlight, not because of what they were wearing, but because of the confidence they felt when wearing it. All of the women I learned about were leaders. They had what it takes to lead a nation, and one day, a lady as determined as them will. When you’re finished reading, I think you’ll agree.