As an educator and First Lady Jill Biden, like many of her predecessors, prefers to keep most photo-ops about the matter at hand and not about the clothes on her back.
But Wednesday’s appearance at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History was undeniably fashion-driven. The occasion was the unveiling of the Markarian ensemble she donned for President Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony in 2021 and the Gabriela Hearst gown worn for the evening festivities that followed. The New York-based designers behind both labels — Markarian’s Alexandra O’Neill and Hearst, joined FLOTUS in the Flag Hall. From Thursday, their now-historic designs will be on view at the center of the First Ladies Collection in the Smithsonian.
O’Neill had designed a blue tweed dress, embellished with a floral motif of pearls and crystals, and a coordinating coat with a dark blue velvet collar and cuffs. Hearst, founder and creative director of her namesake company, crafted an ivory silk wool dress and double-breasted cashmere coat, with embroidery reminiscent of the official flowers of every American state and territory. (The one for Jill Biden’s home state of Delaware was placed above her heart, a detail shared by FLOTUS during her remarks.) As a sign of the times, and a memento marking how the Jan. 20, 2021, inauguration was held during the COVID-19 pandemic, the face masks the first lady wore with each outfit will also be on display.
In her remarks at Wednesday’s ceremony, Biden said, “Clothing is art and articulation. It’s a manifestation of a moment of time. It’s history.”
She also discussed fashion’s changing role in her life, according to a pool report. “When I became first lady, I knew that people would start to care a lot more about what I wore. There have been times when I welcomed that spotlight, because I knew that my clothes could help me say something important. Like when I wore my ‘Vote’ boots on Election Day [in 2020] and my “Love” jacket during our first trip overseas. And then the more mundane times, when I wore a scrunchy to the bakery and it ended up on the nightly news,” she said.
After that line “got a lot of applause,” Biden added, “I look forward to adding some menswear to this gallery in the future as well.”
She also shed some light about why she decided on the little-known Markarian label two years ago, explaining that O’Neill was “just getting started, the leader of a young, small team with big ideas,” Biden said. “Her designs seemed both timeless and new. And that was exactly what I was hoping to find. Because young people showed up and voted for Joe in historic numbers. And I wanted to reflect their passion, creativity and hope that day.”
Having befriended Hearst after meeting the designer at a Save the Children event that she had chaired, Biden said Hearst always pushes her to try new things and step out of her comfort zone. FLOTUS told the crowd that there wasn’t any convincing needed for the design of the Inaugural evening dress. Biden thanked Hearst for “making our vision of a truly united America come to life. I’m so grateful for your talent and your friendship.”
Wednesday’s attendees got a glimpse of the creative process behind those Inaugural Day looks on the event program, which featured designer sketches, according to a pool report.
Before social media influencers and 24/7 global entertainment media coverage dominated had such a hold on the public psyche, first ladies were arbiters of style for many women. Think Nancy Reagan red, Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats and Barbara Bush’s double-strand pearl necklaces. Just as other museums have been moving away from stereotypical portrayals and discriminatory artist representation, the Smithsonian has made a concerted effort to encourage visitor to consider the changing role of the first lady and American women in general over the past 200 years. The First Ladies Collection, which displays 27 dresses from Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Lou Hoover, Melania Trump and others, is one of the Smithsonian’s prized attractions. In addition to the FLOTUS-worn frocks, 160-plus other objects are also on view. The museum has a robust collection that include the 61-carat Loree Rodkin diamond earrings that Obama wore to the 2009 inaugural balls and the Judith Leiber-designed clutch purse carried by Mamie Eisenhower for the 1953 inaugural balls.
FLOTUS had plenty of moral support, thanks to her sisters Kim, Kelly and Bonny Jacobs; her daughter Ashley; granddaughters Finnegan and Naomi; sister-in-law Valerie Biden Owens, and nieces Missy and Casey Owens, according to a pool report. Markarian is a popular resource with the Biden family. Naomi Biden sported an O’Neill-designed cocktail dress for the after party following her White House wedding last fall.
In a phone interview from the National Museum of American History Wednesday, O’Neill said FLOTUS’ team had initially reached out a month before the inauguration, while scouting a number of prospective designers. Speaking from the First Ladies Collection, where the inaugural looks had been swiftly installed after the unveiling, the designer admitted that the-did-that-really-happen feeling may never wear off. “I don’t know if it is ever going to sink in. Definitely seeing it here in the First Ladies exhibit is helpful. It’s still pretty unbelievable and mind-blowing to be included in such wonderful company here,” she said.
The Denver native, who has called New York home for 20-plus years, started her company in 2017. A team of four helped bring FLOTUS’ inaugural looks to life, with the support of other garment center resources for embroidery, sewing and patternmaking. O’Neill said, “It’s lovely that Biden could have chosen any big-name designer for the inauguration and she made the point of choosing a relatively up-and-coming designer. It’s nice that she used her platform specifically to support young talent and a company that the impact would be profound, [having subsequently increased her team to nine].”
Markarain also had the inside track for what FLOTUS wore to the unveiling — a short-sleeved blue dress with a gold motif. Having made a few potential dresses for Biden to wear, O’Neill was wishful that would happen. “I was hopeful — always hopeful,” the designer said.