Complete Story


Volume 2, Issue April 2023

Nichola D. Gutgold

FLARE Focus on When The First Lady is an Educator,
A Lesson Comes Dressed in Inaugural Clothing

Nichola D. Gutgold

Editor’s Note: Dr. Gutgold is a professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University Lehigh Valley Campus. She is the writer of previous essays on Betty Ford and Melania Trump. Her most recent book is Electing Madam Vice President: When Women Run, Women Win (Lexington Books, 2022).  Dr. Gutgold is currently writing a book on Dr. Biden.

One of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is the First Ladies Exhibit. With over 1,000 items in the collection, the Smithsonian documents the lives and legacies of the women who have served in this invaluable role.[i] It was an honor to attend the ceremony of the presentation of the inaugural clothing of First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, which she wore in January 2021 to President Biden’s swearing-in and other celebratory events to mark the occasion.

            The donation of each of our first lady’s clothing is a time-honored tradition that dates to First Lady Helen Taft, who contributed to the establishment of the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection. When asked to donate a dress that would appear in the first exhibition of women’s period costume, she chose the gown she wore to President Taft’s 1909 inauguration. Her choice set a precedent for future first ladies who have continued to donate the gown she wore to the inaugural balls. However, there was nothing “retro” about this year’s ceremony. Where, in the past, the clothing included glittering gowns worn to the inaugural balls, this year’s donation included two modest (though exquisite) dresses with matching coats and, for the first time in history, matching face masks. The face masks are a sobering reminder of the Covid-19 Pandemic, which was still raging at the time of the inauguration, and which had by then cost our country 400,000 precious lives.

            First ladies of the United States are not elected and earn no government salary. They usually champion causes they care deeply about. As an educator, Dr. Biden has consistently used her considerable platform as first lady to educate, and she continued to do so at the Smithsonian event. To greater or lesser extent our clothing, and certainly the clothing of public figures, communicates so much more than just a covering of the body. As Dr. Biden said in her remarks, “Clothing is an art and articulation. It’s a manifestation of a moment in time.” Clothing designer Gabriela Hearst created the evening ensemble consisting of an ivory fitted dress with matching cashmere coat. Its distinction is seen in the white color, a homage to suffragists, and the fifty territory and state flowers embroidered throughout the garment. The flowers reflect Dr. Biden’s wish to demonstrate unity in the country. Her daytime ensemble, a peacock blue dress and matching coat, was designed by Alexandra O’Neill. Blue was the color selected for its symbolism of optimism. As Dr. Biden said, “They’re just small pieces of cloth—but they represent the enormity of what we faced at the time: A pandemic that changed our world forever. Months of closed schools and businesses. A virtual presidential campaign. So much time spent apart.”

            The role of first lady has been uniquely shaped by each woman who has held the position, and as the first first lady to keep her paid employment as an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College, Dr. Biden has extended her classroom to the entire country, even with this seemingly stereotypical event of the presentation of inaugural garments. Dr. Biden gave a nod to the hope for the future that one day a woman will be elected president when she said, “In the future, when educators like me bring their classes through this exhibit, I hope that these dresses will help them teach their students about what started on that January day, about how we came together as a nation, rebuilding shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart. I hope they will inspire future generations to learn more about the women behind the dresses. And I look forward to adding some menswear to this gallery in the future!”  

            Certainly Dr. Biden is doing her part to move the role of the first lady forward. In her presentation of inaugural ensembles we are reminded that the clothing a first lady wears is not just clothing at all. Symbolism reflecting historical moments in time is now a pattern in first lady attire. Jacqueline Kennedy’s choice of white for inaugural clothing symbolized a fresh start and her concept of white as “the most ceremonial color.”[ii] Similarly, Michelle Obama’s 2008 white chiffon gown was a symbol of hope for the new administration. Dr. Biden’s thoughtfulness reflects this legacy of setting a tone for what is to come. In 2021, there was strategic thinking behind the clothing that was meant to represent the values of the presidential administration and the current climate of the United States. In this way, Dr. Biden, a lifelong educator, shares an important lesson about the role of fashion as a significant marker of history.


[i] Lisa Kathleen Graddy and Amy Pastan. (2014). The Smithsonian First Ladies Collection. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

[ii] Hamish Bowles, Ed. (2001). Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Bulfinch Press.

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