Fashion Week at the Smithsonian

From Franklin to Seinfeld, Monroe to Obama, America’s fashionable past lives at the American History Museum

Fashion Week kicked off September 6, but here at the Smithsonian, it’s always Fashion Week.
Fashion Week kicked off September 6, but here at the Smithsonian, it’s always Fashion Week. Photo by Flickr user FashionMingle

You might not see the Olsen twins or Kimye canoodling on the Mall, but the Smithsonian has plenty of eye-catching threads for the fashion-inclined. From historical to hip, America’s finest fashions are right here in D.C.

Though it had been on loan for years, Benjamin Franklin’s suit from his 1778 diplomatic mission to France was finally added to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection in August. Purchased from the Massachusetts Historical Society, the suit was worn on Franklin’s historic trip to secure the Treaty of Alliance during the Revolutionary War. Now too delicate to display frequently, the outfit was originally a rich plum color. Though the frilly collar and long coat now seem absurdly formal, the suit’s simple design was actually supposed to speak Franklin’s vision of America as an honest and simple country, according to curator Nancy Davis.

Fashion Week at the Smithsonian
We all know clothes make the man In this case, clothes made the country. Courtesy the American History Museum

Feedsack dresses were an economic necessity for the hard-hit farming families of the 1920s and 30s. But that doesn’t mean women didn’t take pride in creating one-of-a-kind designs. The bag manufacturers even began responding to market demand, according to the American History Museum, by printing ever-more colorful patterns on their products. Fashionable and frugal, the feedsack trend continued through WWII with regional contests for women to show off their skills.

Fashion Week at the Smithsonian
This chic dress was made by Mrs. G. R. (Dorothy) Overall of Caldwell, Kansas, in 1959. Courtesy the American History Museum

Though her life was overshadowed by tragedy and a fictionalized biography by author Joyce Carol Oates, Marilyn Monroe has retained her place as a fashion icon. Her blonde hair, pinup makeup and sexy ensembles catapulted the Hollywood diva to fame. But even a sex icon knows when to cover up. Her kidskin evening gloves reflect a timeless elegance America returns to season after season.

Fashion Week at the Smithsonian
Evening gloves from one of Hollywood’s most alluring starlets are effortlessly chic. Courtesy the American History Museum

Neither alluring nor tragic, the next star to earn a spot on the catwalk is comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Known for playing more or less himself in Larry David’s hit series, “Seinfeld,” his claim to fashion fame comes from one of David’s favorite episodes, The Puffy Shirt. Because of an unfortunate miscommunication, Seinfeld must appear on the Today show wearing a pirate-inspired blouse designed by Kramer’s then-girlfriend. Never known for keeping his comments to himself on anything big or small, Seinfeld decries the frilly garment on air.

It may be too fancy for Seinfeld’s plain tastes, but the Smithsonian was happy to take it. The actor told the Washington Post, “This might be the first joke inducted into the Smithsonian Institution.” While Seinfeld may prefer his quintessentially America blue jeans, the puffed up shirt gently pokes fun at haute couture.

Fashion Week at the Smithsonian
Never nod when a low-talker is speaking or you could end up dressed like a pirate on national television. Courtesy the American History Museum

Known as Hollywood for ugly people, D.C. has long challenged that claim with stylish State icons. From Martha Washington to Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, no group has done more for the fashion credibility of the nation’s capital than the First Ladies. When Michelle Obama went with Manhattan-based designer Jason Wu for her 2009 inaugural ball, she set the bar high. Throughout her time in the capital, whether she’s championing healthy food policies for our children or reaching out to returning veterans, the FLOTUS continues to bring D.C.’s fashion game to a new level. The Harvard Business Review even published a study in 2010 on the “Michelle Obama Effect,” citing the boost brands, including many American companies like J.Crew, receive after seen on the trend-setting First Lady.

Fashion Week at the Smithsonian
This Jason Wu gown ignited the designer’s career while also launching Michelle Obama as a style icon. Courtesy the American History Museum