Beneath the smooth, reflective ripples of the National Museum of American History’s Abstract Flag installation, a ceremony convened this morning to herald the donation of Melania Trump’s inaugural ball gown to the museum’s ever-growing and perennially popular First Ladies Collection. The transfer perpetuates a time-honored tradition dating to the days of the Taft administration, when Helen Taft—a champion of the original First Ladies exhibition—entrusted to the Smithsonian the gown she had sported at the inaugural dance of 1909.
Melania’s dress, now officially installed in the First Ladies gallery, is a slender, flowing white number realized by French-American couturier Hervé Pierre. Conceptualized in collaboration with Melania, the off-the-shoulder silk crepe gown is encircled at the waist by an eye-catching claret-colored ribbon, and a gently sloping ruffled accent up top cascades fluidly into the slit of the long skirt below.
“When sitting down with Hervé to discuss our vision,” Melania recalls, “I expressed a desire for a modern, sleek, light, unique and unexpected look.” As she addressed the crowd assembled in Flag Hall today, Melania made it clear that seeing her own input manifest in the piece was crucial to her. “I have had a passion for design from a very young age,” she says, “and I had a very precise idea of what I wanted for such a historic evening.”
Pierre was no doubt appreciative of the guidance, considering the new First Lady sprung the assignment on him at the eleventh hour, a mere fortnight prior to the January 20 inauguration. Looking back on the chaotic bustle of the post-election transition, Melania admits that her thoughts were elsewhere. “To be honest,” she says, “what I would wear to the inaugural ball was the last thing on my mind.” Singling out Pierre—also in attendance at the ceremony—for applause, Melania termed him a “true artist and a real professional.” Despite her leaving “poor Hervé” two short weeks in which to work, she says, the dress turned out to be “such a wonderful piece.”
American History Museum director John Gray, who delivered opening remarks, aimed to contextualize Melania’s donation to what has become a highly diverse, evocative showcase of first lady fashion from across the decades. To Gray, the warmth and radiance of first ladies’ inaugural attire speaks to this country’s model of smooth structural change in government. The First Ladies galleries, he says, illuminate “not only the importance, grandeur, and elegance of the first ladies” themselves, but also “how in our American democracy transitions of power are celebrated peacefully.”
Smithsonian Institution secretary David Skorton agreed that donations of this kind “help to underscore our values as a nation.” He is also appreciative of the way in which the dresses in the collection speak to the character and personality of the various first ladies. Invoking designer Miuccia Prada’s observation that “Fashion is instant language,” Skorton says that “These gowns speak to us, telling us much about the women who wore them.”
Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of the First Ladies collection, expands on this idea, noting that the dresses on display—Melania’s now among them—“are all pieces of their time period, so it’s fashion of the time, but it also shows us a bit about the first ladies’ personal style, and how each wanted to project an image of herself—and potentially the administration.” She says that first impressions can be critical, and that the seemingly trifling fashion choices of first ladies can actually go a long way toward public messaging.
Even if there may be an element of calculation hidden in the gowns of the collection, though, Kathleen is keen to emphasize that they are, at heart, expressions of self. These are gowns that powerful American women chose for themselves to convey outwardly their idiosyncratic ideals and convictions.
For those in the shoes now filled by Melania Trump, Kathleen says, “There’s no formal job description. So each first lady chooses a dress to represent herself, and that’s really the first note of her creating a role.”