As inauguration nears, check out the Smithsonian’s “First Ladies” exhibit

As preparations accelerate in advance of of President Obama’s second inauguration on Monday (which is also Martin Luther King, Jr., Day), one of the biggest stories coming out of Washington is Michelle Obama’s new “bangs” hairstyle.  I bring this up not to trivialize Mrs. Obama’s overall achievement and intellect.  She is an attorney, which is to say the that the gray matter under those bangs is pretty formidable.

But the attention generated by her hairstyle change reminds me of Hillary Clinton, also an attorney, who changed her own hairstyle many times seemingly in response to press criticism of her liking for headbands back in 1992.  Now, as she finally leaves behind her own powerful positions as a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, I am glad to see her return to that long-haired style she apparently always preferred to the various bobs and dress-for-success short haircuts I suspect she adopted to shut up the media sniping.

While it’s annoying that women’s appearance continues to attract such intense interest — especially when the women in question are so intelligent and accomplished — there must be something in our human nature that compels us to focus on hair and clothing as some sort of marker, even as some better part of us acknowledges how superficial it is.

Which brings me to my main reason for posting today.  I came across a reference to the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian and got way too sidetracked by the photos of First Ladies’ evening wear.

One of Martha Washington’s gowns is there (below)

as are gowns worn by many other First Ladies either to Inaugural Balls or to other White House functions.  Looking at their dresses is like looking at snapshots of fashion history.

Dolly Madison’s gown (below) is fashioned in the Empire style associated with the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Joséphine de Beauharnais, and more recognizable to us moderns as that style worn by the Bennet sisters in our many film productions of of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s gown (below) has the full, pouffy skirt of the Civil War era.

The dresses of Lucy Hayes and Frances Cleveland (respectively, below) have the bustles so popular in the 1880s.

Florence Harding’s early 1920s dress (below) corresponds with the end of the floor-length-dress era for women’s daily attire.

The First Lady who followed her, Grace Coolidge, wore a flapper-style gown (below) reflecting the rise of the modern woman as the first quarter of the 20th century came to a close.

If you’d like to experience more of the Smithsonian’s First Ladies exhibit, go to http://americanhistory.si.edu/first-ladies/introduction.  There are many additional photos, and the discussion is fascinating.

(For the record, I like Michelle’s new hairstyle.)

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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