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Inaugural gown is the main attraction

By Sarah LeTrent, CNN
updated 11:18 PM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
Michelle Obama's Jason Wu inaugural ball gown helped put both the first lady and the fashion designer on fashion "it" lists. Click through to see styles from the last 100 years of inauguration fashion.
Michelle Obama's Jason Wu inaugural ball gown helped put both the first lady and the fashion designer on fashion "it" lists. Click through to see styles from the last 100 years of inauguration fashion.
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A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
A century of inauguration fashion
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Speculation is swirling over what the first lady will wear to the inaugural ball
  • Michelle Obama: A gown choice "tells us something much more about each single first lady"
  • Gowns of the 11 most recent first ladies are on display at the Smithsonian

(CNN) -- As Inauguration Day approaches, the question on everyone's lips is: What will the first lady be wearing?

Glitz, gowns and government bigwigs will all be on display at Monday's parade of inaugural pomp and circumstance.

President Barack Obama will be ceremonially sworn into his second term in office by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts around midday. After the daytime events, which will include the inaugural address and parade, the president and first lady Michelle Obama will end their night by taking to the dance floor at two inaugural balls.

While the formal events bring out their fair share of celebrities, media mavens, and the just-darn-lucky citizens who scored tickets online, there will be only one belle of the ball: The first lady.

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Behold one of the most prized traditions of the inaugural season: the wait for the dress. The hype around the inaugural ball gown is the closest thing this side of the pond to a royal wedding gown, and it's approached with the same gusto.

"There has always been an interest in what the first lady is wearing. Photographs and descriptions of the inaugural gown and who designed it have been news for decades," said Lisa Kathleen Graddy, the curator of The Smithsonian's First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History.

"Sometimes sketches and descriptions of the dress and even formal photographs of the incoming first lady wearing the dress were released in advance to newspapers," she said.

After all, it is typically the country's collective first impression of the first lady.

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Mr. President, who are you wearing?

Monday evening, the president and first lady will attend the Commander in Chief's Ball, which honors service members and their families, a tradition started by former President George W. Bush; and at the Inaugural Ball, the president and first lady will celebrate with people around the country who bought tickets to attend.

At the 2009 inaugural balls, Michelle Obama donned a white chiffon, one-shoulder dress created by Jason Wu, a then up-and-coming, 26-year-old Taiwanese-born designer. She didn't reveal who or what she would be wearing until she stepped out that night. Wu's name is now mentioned in the same breath as heavy-hitting designers like Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Hererra, Marc Jacobs and Diane Von Furstenberg.

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That now-iconic gown is part of "A First Lady's Debut," a collection on display at The Smithsonian.

Included in the display are the gowns worn by the 11 most recent first ladies, beginning with Mamie Eisenhower. The museum also houses The First Ladies Collection, which displays clothing worn by earlier White House residents.

"When we look at the gown that Jackie Kennedy wore 50 years ago, or the one that Mary Todd Lincoln wore more than a hundred years before that, it really takes us beyond the history books and the photographs, and it helps us understand that history is really made by real live people," said the current first lady at the unveiling of her gown in March 2010.

She continued: "The detail of each gown -- the fabric, the cut, the color -- tells us something much more about each single first lady. It's a visual reminder that we each come from such different backgrounds, from different generations, and from different walks of life."

Graddy said Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan in particular captured the look and feel of their eras -- the early '50s, '60s and '80s, respectively.

Mamie Eisenhower's iconic inaugural ball gown was designed by Jewish-American fashion designer Nettie Rosenstein, who championed ready-to-wear fashion and is credited by many with popularizing the "little black dress." It was a sparkling pink creation, made with 2,000 rhinestones. "First Lady Pink" soon became a popular color choice for ladies of the decade.

While Eisenhower was quintessential 1950s, Jacqueline Kennedy went signature '60s with a gown by Ethel Frankau of Bergdorf Custom Salon.

Frankau, who based the gown on descriptions and consultations with Mrs. Kennedy, created a slim, straight silhouette. A chiffon overlay covered an encrusted, off-white strapless bodice (wearing strapless couture without some sort of covering was considered risqué at the time).

Meanwhile, Nancy Reagan's hand-beaded gown by American couturier James Galanos cost $22,500 and oozed the Hollywood glamour that she and her actor-turned-politician husband brought to the White House.

It's a given that no matter how handsome President Obama might look in his tuxedo at the galas, all eyes will be on his companion.

"The first lady is both an American celebrity and one of the most visible representatives of the nation. She's 'our' first lady and our pride and interest, and curiosity, extends to what she wears," Graddy said.

See the past 100 years' worth of inaugural outfits in the gallery above.

Follow CNN Living on Facebook and writer Sarah LeTrent on Twitter

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