You rarely get a chance to re-style the big events in your life. You will always have that crazy haircut in your high school graduation photo, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Now imagine that you had to choose a special event dress that would be viewed by billions, preserved for the ages, and exhibited for public viewing for decades. The dress has to not only flatter you but also symbolically represent the hopes and dreams of the nation when you wore it. That’s the daunting task for First Ladies face when choosing an inaugural ball gown.
But a rarefied group of First Ladies get to have a second chance at restyling themselves for such a momentous occasion. In the last sixty years, there have only been a handful of women who got a second chance to pick an inaugural ball gown: Mamie Eisenhower, Patricia Nixon, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush – and now, Michelle Obama.
In 1957, Mamie Eisenhower didn’t need to upgrade her fashion image. Her first inaugural gown, worn in 1953, was an immediate sensation. Designed by Nettie Rosenstein, it was a pale pink dress with an off-shoulder neckline and thousands of hand-sewn rhinestones. It inspired the dominant color of the decade: Mamie Pink. She chose another fashion-forward gown for her second inaugural ball. Also designed by Rosenstein, it was a citron yellow dress with a princess silhouette and translucent topaz beading.
Patricia Nixon fared less well with her first gown in 1969. Designed by Harvey Berin, the mimosa satin gown was covered by a bolero jacket studded with Swarovski crystals. The overall effect was stiff and stuffy; one critic snarked that the First Lady looked “like a school teacher on her night out.” For her second inaugural ball in 1973, Mrs. Nixon ramped up her inner fashionista by wearing a turquoise crystal dress by Adele Simpson. The second dress’s v-neck, figure-hugging torso and flowing skirt gave the First Lady a more sophisticated look.
With her acting background, Nancy Reagan was confident in dressing for the public eye. Her first inaugural gown, in 1981, was a glamorous one-shoulder white chiffon gown by James Galanos. Mrs. Reagan obviously loved her look because when she had a chance to do it all over again in 1985, she wore a similar, albeit long-sleeved, slender white gown, again by Galanos.
In 1993 Hillary Clinton chose Arkansas designer Sarah Phillips to design her gown. The resulting violet lace dress with a blue velvet overskirt was a mishmash of styles. For her second ball, Mrs. Clinton went with established society designer Oscar de la Renta. The result was a sparkling gold gown with long sleeves, a fitted bodice and a flowing skirt.
Laura Bush chose Texas designer Michael Faircloth. His design was bright and bold, a ruby red dress of Chantilly lace embroidered with Austrian crystals. It had a scoop neckline, long sleeves and a trumpet skirt. The intensely saturated color didn’t do much for Mrs. Bush’s fair complexion. Four years later, she too chose de la Renta. The result was an overwhelmingly popular dress with fashion critics: ice blue and silver tulle with a flattering narrow v-neck.
In 2008, Michelle Obama chose the 26-year-old designer Jason Wu, who created a white chiffon dress with hand-embroidered tulle flowers and scattered crystals. It was a youthful dress, with a full skirt and fitted waist and it was a hit with many fans, if not all fashion critics. Wu has gone to become a superstar in his own right.
For her second inauguration gown, Mrs. Obama wore another gown by Jason Wu - this time a red chiffon and velvet halter gown with a jeweled neckline.
The red halter dress was the only one Wu, who went from fashion insider to household name on this night in 2009, submitted for Mrs. Obama's consideration. He collaborated with jeweler Kimberly McDonald on the jeweled neckline. "For this occasion, it had to be real diamonds," Wu said.