Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection Offers More Intimate Look at History

A new exhibition drawing from the First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., includes one painted paper fan, a wowzer of a silver tea service, one well-worn silk shoe, a lump of charred wood, a wealth of china, and one sweetly autographed copy of Treasure Island—in addition to the beloved inaugural ballgowns, cocktail dresses, and day suits that typically leave visitors swooning.

The collection, one of the most popular exhibitions at the Smithsonian, has been re-examined and re-configured in a new East Wing gallery space in anticipation of a major renovation that will close the museum’s West Wing. This more intimate look at the first ladies—or at least their accoutrement—opens to the public Nov. 19.

Michelle Obama’s white inaugural gown—designed by Jason Wu—still holds center court in the new exhibition. And like the other gowns worn by Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Lady Bird Johnson, and all the rest, it remains a glittering national symbol of culture, femininity, and complicated political gamesmanship.

The gowns, sealed behind glass on headless forms, also tend to have the look of artifacts—wholly disengaged from the women who wore them. But the exhibition’s designer, Claire Brown, and its curator, Lisa Kathleen Graddy, have made a valiant effort to give visitors a more personal understanding of the women who have served in this elevated and poorly conceived role....

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