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150 years of first lady inaugural gowns, from Mary Todd Lincoln to Michelle Obama

With Inauguration Day 2021 ahead, here's a look at first lady inaugural gowns from the past 150 years, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle Obama.
Photo illustration featuring First Ladies from different time periods in their gowns
Inaugural gowns over the years have included designs by Oscar de la Renta, Jason Wu, Hervé Pierre and more.TODAY Illustration / AP / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Of all the events surrounding Inauguration Day, the inaugural balls are by far the most glamorous.

Amid the coronavirus epidemic, however, no balls will follow Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20. Instead, there will be a prime-time event with speeches and performances, titled "Celebrating America," to be broadcast on all major networks. Tom Hanks will host, and Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato and more will take the stage. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will give remarks, as well.

Through the years, the balls have served as an opportunity for the first lady to show off her fashion and shine in carefully selected dress that captures the imagination of a nation.

We've seen first ladies wear everything from velvet to sequins for the occasion, and the style chosen for the celebration has always seemed to reflect the mood of that time period.

Here's a brief history some of the iconic ball gowns and the ladies who brought them to life.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln photographed in her inaugural ball gown.The Art Archive/REX/Shutterstock

In the early 1860s, Mary Todd Lincoln sat for a formal photograph in what was believed to be the gown she wore for President Lincoln's inauguration. The off-the-shoulder design featured elaborate printed ruffles at the hem and bust and floral designs. The first lady accessorized with a floral headpiece, becoming perhaps the first to spark the flower-crown craze. The look certainly has wedding dress vibes.

Helen Taft

First lady Helen Taft poses in her inaugural gown.Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Helen Taft chose a white silk chiffon gown with delicate metallic embroidery trimmed with rhinestones and beads. The gown was the first contribution to the Smithsonian's first ladies collection and started a precedent for future first ladies to donate their inaugural gown to the institution.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt in her first inauguration gown.Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

For President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt chose a flowing, long-sleeved gown with an embellished belt at the waist.

Eleanor Roosevelt models one of three gowns she would wear on inauguration day in 1941.Bettmann Archive

Eight years later, she selected a silk gown with cap sleeves and a sweeping train.

Bess Truman

First lady Bess Truman, far left, celebrates President Truman's inauguration with her daughter and the ball's co-chairs.Harry S. Truman Library

Bess Truman chose a velveteen gown with an elaborate white accent at the shoulder for her husband's inauguration. She topped off the outfit with a cropped fur coat.

Mamie Eisenhower

President Dwight Eisenhower holds the arm of his wife as they leave the White House en route to inaugural ball.ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1953, Mamie Eisenhower selected a glamorous gown embellished with sequins. To complement the elegant look, she chose a white fur stole and a diamond choker.

First lady Mamie Eisenhower poses in her second inaugural gown.Getty Images

Four years later, Eisenhower previewed the gown she would be wearing in an official photo. She accessorized the intricate lace gown with a three-strand pearl necklace and a beaded clutch.

Jacqueline Kennedy

Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy leave the White House on Inauguration Day.ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jacqueline Kennedy chose an off-white gown with a strapless bodice overlaid with silk chiffon. To cover up before the evening's festivities, the iconic first lady wore a matching, floor-length cape.

Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson and President Lyndon B. Johnson at the Presidential Inaugural Ball.LBJ Library

Lady Bird Johnson wore a bright yellow gown with fur-accented sleeves to celebrate President Johnson's inauguration in 1965.

Pat Nixon

Pat Nixon models the gown she wore to the inaugural ball.Bettmann Archive

Pat Nixon also chose a yellow dress for her husband's inauguration in 1969. The simple silk skirt is complemented by an ornate jacket adorned with Austrian crystals.

Rosalynn Carter

President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Carter in the blue room of the White House.ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rosalynn Carter made an unlikely fashion choice for the inaugural ball in 1977 by wearing the same dress that she had worn to celebrate her husband's inauguration as governor of Georgia. It may have been surprising at the time, but we can see why the first lady would want to wear this stylish pale-blue gown again!

Nancy Reagan

President Reagan and Nancy Reagan at their first inaugural ball.Corbis via Getty Images

In 1981, Nancy Reagan wore a one-shoulder white column gown designed by James Galanos. The elegant look was topped off with a classic pair of long white gloves.

The Reagans wave to the crowd in 1985.AP

Four years later, she stuck to the same color palette but added sleeves and even more sparkle. After all, it was the '80s!

Barbara Bush

President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush attend the inaugural ball.ASSOCIATED PRESS

Barbara Bush chose a deep-blue gown with a velvet bodice and a draped satin skirt for her husband's inauguration in 1989.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Rodham Clinton shares a laugh with President Bill Clinton at the inaugural ball.AP

In 1993, Hillary Clinton wore a violet column gown with flowing panels at the side. The intricately beaded dress was designed by Sarah Phillips for the occasion.

The Clintons dance at the inaugural ball in 1997.ASSOCIATED PRESS

She decided on another intricately beaded number for the 1997 inauguration. The stunning gold dress was designed by Oscar de la Renta and had a floor-length gold cape to match.

Laura Bush

First lady Laura Bush stands with daughters Barbara, left and Jenna.ASSOCIATED PRESS

The newly minted first lady chose a vibrant red gown designed by fellow Texan Michael Faircloth for the 2001 inaugural ball. The lace dress was embellished with delicate beading that added a subtle shimmer to the look.

President Bush and Laura Bush wave to the crowd at an inaugural ball in 2005.ASSOCIATED PRESS

Four years later, she chose Oscar de la Renta to design her gown for the occasion. The icy-blue dress was covered with embellishments and sparkles for a glamorous look.

Michelle Obama

First lady Michelle Obama at an inaugural ball in 2009.SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images

Michelle Obama chose a one-shoulder white gown from designer Jason Wu for President Obama's 2009 inauguration. She accessorized the look with long drop earrings, delicate bangles and a stunning ring.

Michelle Obama waves to the crowd at the Commander-In-Chief's Ball.JEWEL SAMAD / AFP - Getty Images file

Obama wore another Jason Wu gown for the 2013 inauguration but went for a daring red look the second time around. The stylish halter gown in a textured red fabric really popped against the patriotic backdrop.

Melania Trump

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump take the stage at the Freedom Inaugural Ball on January 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C.Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images

Melania Trump had a hand in the design for the dress she wore to the 2017 inaugural ball. It was created by French-American designer Hervé Pierre in collaboration with the first lady herself. It's made of off-white silk crepe and features a ruffle accent trim, slitted skirt and thin red claret ribbon.