History Of First Lady Fashion From 1789 To Today

Published on: 02/24/2021 12:39 pm

In America, we don’t have royalty, so we fixate on celebrity. First Ladies certainly fit that bill, commanding audiences at every appearance. For the last three centuries, these ladies of the hour have been influencing fashion alongside musicians and actors, starting with their inaugural looks.

All the First Ladies inaugural ball gowns usually have two debuts: one at the swearing in ceremonies and another at the inaugural ball itself.

These First Lady fashions aren’t just entertaining. They’re also symbolic. Though First Ladies don’t hold any specific powers, they use their influence, and outfits, to communicate their intentions for the next Presidential term.

Take for instance when Michelle Obama and her daughters wore purple to the 2013 inauguration. It was a clear signal that both parties, red and blue, need to work together for the sake of our collective future – and that was just look number one.    

The fashion of First Ladies on inauguration day is only the beginning. After being sworn in, every ballgown a First Lady wears to a state dinner or foreign press conference is also sure to make headlines. Here are a few First Lady dresses through the years that have captured our hearts and shifted fashion culture.

Fashions of the First Ladies in the 18th Century

The history of First Ladies starts here. In 1789, Martha Washington was not only one of the nation’s wealthiest women; she was also the first, First Lady. Known for her experimental fashion, Martha routinely wowed with accessories.  You’ll probably have seen her in a mix of bonnets/headpieces, fingerless satin gloves, and cloaks. Yet it was her purple silk wedding shoes that really catapulted her trendsetter status.

Fashions of the First Ladies in the 19th Century

Arguably the most opulent period in First Ladies and fashion, 19th century women like Abigail Adams, Martha Jefferson, Dolley Madison, and Julia Grant were largely Victorian in their fashion choices. Lace, pleats, and layered petticoat skirts ruled the runway.

Mary Todd Lincoln was a standout during this era – and not just because of her famous husband. Her taste is often regarded as lavish. The gown she wore to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration sat off the shoulders and exploded into a full, bustled skirt. The look was adorned with fresh flowers on a handmade headpiece and sash that draped her body. The entire look was said to have run congress $20,000 over what they’d originally budgeted for the First Lady look!

By the time Frances Cleveland came along in 1886, things really started to heat up. She bucked more conservative fashions of the time, opting for dresses, which exposed her neck, arms, and shoulders. Many were also corseted at the waist and remained semi-fitted, showcasing her natural curves. Even as she was petitioned to stop, she stayed true to her personal style, leaving behind an impressive wardrobe legacy.

Fashions of the First Ladies in the 20th Century

By the 19th century, fashion was changing fast. Early on, flower-forward hats were a staple. Helen Taft was known for her massive bonnet collection and was also the first, First Lady to donate her inaugural gown to museum historians. Until the 1950s, First Ladies were largely conservative with their looks.

Then came Jackie.

Jackie Onassis-Kennedy tops the long list of fashionable first ladies. Everywhere she went she reportedly charmed audiences with her poise, grace, and intellect. Few First Ladies before or since have throttled fashion trends so unilaterally.  She’s best known for not just wearing impossibly chic outfits, but also for designing them!

Patricia Nixon, Betty Ford, and Nancy Regan were stately older women who infused color into their looks but weren’t afraid to take a little (conservative) risk.

Via Clinton Presidential Library

However, it’s Hillary Clinton who really captures the world with her designer-inspired outfits, including her famous Oscar de la Renta inaugural dress. Still, we prefer her violet beaded sheath dress she wore to her first inaugural event. Not only was it marvelously memorable, it was also crafted by an Arkansas designer as a nod to her alma mater. 

Fashions of the First Ladies in the 21st Century


Laura Bush had a string of elegant evening gowns to boast about, but none of them compare to the incomparable fashion of Michelle Obama.

Via Barack Obama Presidential Library

From her Jason Wu, ruby-red chiffon halter dress to her lemongrass-shaded wool dress and matching jacket or white satin one shoulder gown, she’s one of the most widely cited fashionable first ladies in history – and those are only her inaugural looks! Every time Michelle showed up in public, she sent ripples through the fashion world. Four years after her husband left office she continues to do so. (V.O.T.E necklace, anyone?)

Most recently, Jill Biden, who is no stranger to inaugural dresses, is the latest in a line of exceptionally stylish first ladies. Her turquoise blue inauguration suite dress with matching blue full-length coat and leather gloves is befitting of a woman who is making her mark by continuing to work full-time teaching while her husband takes the helm as the leader of the free world.

First Ladies fashion has changed a lot over the years. However, it may be more accurate to say that First Ladies themselves have changed fashion a lot over the years. First Lady dresses may not seem like much at first, but when you look a little deeper it’s pretty impressive the influence these women and their wears command. How the Fashion of the First Ladies will evolve in the coming years remains to be seen. Though, as the matrons of American high society, they’ll continue to make a strong statement.

Gina Rivera

Gina Rivera

Beauty Icon and Expert

Gina Rivera skyrocketed to success when the company she founded in 2007, Phenix Salon Suites, became the fastest-growing salon suite company in the beauty industry. With more than 300 locations nationally and international expansion occurring in the UK, Entrepreneur Magazine named Phenix Salon Suites a Top 500 Franchise list seven years running.