Martha Washington owned fine clothing—imported silks, English laces, garnet earrings and necklaces, yet she was, in Abigail Adams’s words, “plain in her dress,” with no improper (i.e., nondemocratic) hint of luxury or aristocracy. First ladies ever since have accommodated these dual expectations of dignity and fashion. Mary Todd Lincoln took ridicule for her extravagance (her purple gown below), while wives like Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan won admiration for their highly visible support of American designers. Now fashion lovers and history buffs have reason to converge at key sites in the capital.
Mount Vernon opens at 9 a.m., displaying Martha’s jewelry in pearls, garnets and diamonds. Order a “colonial“ lunch at the inn on the edge of the estate. At the Mall’s American History museum (opens 10 a.m.), head to the First Ladies Collection, 26 dresses from Grace Coolidge’s flapper gown to Rosalynn Carter’s dress bought at a Georgia department store. Displayed until 2015: Michelle Obama’s ruby-red Jason Wu halter gown and Jimmy Choo shoes she wore to the second inaugural balls.
Three blocks east at the National Archives, a first lady accessory—Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat by Halston—joins historic documents in the exhibit “Making Their Mark.” Its inclusion, alongside Bush II’s cowboy boots, signals a broad notion of “signature style.” Five blocks west of Dupont Circle, at Woodrow Wilson House, Edith’s closet holds a 1920s black chiffon dress, an ermine capelet and a 1930s red velour gown, while Woodrow’s holds a rare coat of kangaroo fur with wombat collar.
State dinners require formal attire, and Jackie Kennedy wore a yellow silk gown to her husband’s first. At the Kennedy Center Opera House opening, she wore an elegant beaded long gown. Check out the center’s nightly performances, sometimes attended by the Obamas in the Presidential Box. But the first couple is just as likely to turn up at Verizon Center for an NBA Wizards game, the president in black windbreaker, Michelle in a colorful, long-sleeved J. Crew tee.