Presidential Inauguration

Doug Mills/AP

Inaugural Balls: The Glitz, the Glamour, the Disasters

January 15, 2009
by Jen O'Neill
After the solemnities of the inaugural celebration, it’s time for all politicos to put on their best shoes and dance. Many presidents have chosen to mark the beginning of their administrations with one or more inaugural balls. Here are some highlights of the upcoming festivities, and trivia about the sparkling events—and social faux pas—of yesteryear.

Having a Ball in 2009

The evening after the inauguration ceremony, the new First Couple, Barack and Michelle Obama, will make cameo appearances at ten official balls sponsored by the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC). To fulfill Obama’s promise to make this inaugural celebration accessible to all Americans, he will host the first-ever Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, which will be open to ordinary citizens, and to D.C. residents in particular.

Others will be celebrating at one of the dozens of “unofficial balls,” held before, on and after January 20. For example, former Vice President Al Gore will be hosting a Green Inaugural Ball on January 19, to encourage the new administration and its supporters to promote energy-efficient and eco-friendly policies.

Meanwhile, Rihanna will take center stage at an unofficial charity ball, proceeds to go to Feeding America; Anne Hathaway, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Ashley Judd, Spike Lee and Ron Howard will join many other celebrities as hosts of a fundraising ball for the nonprofit advocacy group The Creative Coalition. Elvis Costello and Sting plan to perform at the latter event.


When the First Couple makes their appearance at each inaugural ball, special attention will be paid to how they’re dressed. The scrutiny of first lady fashion goes all the way back to Martha Washington, the nation’s first presidential spouse.

Some first ladies have won instant acclaim for their fashion choices: Americans loved the simple ivory sheath that Jacqueline Kennedy designed for herself. But Rosalynn Carter’s sentimental decision to wear an old gown got the thumbs down from fashion critics.

Everyone’s already been watching Michelle Obama, whose fresh-from-the-runway Narciso Rodriguez dress drew both cheers and jeers on Election Night. What she will wear on the evening of the inauguration remains a closely guarded secret. That didn’t stop Women’s Wear Daily from recruiting several designers to offer sketches of potential inaugural gowns. As a bonus, there are also suggested outfits for the presidential daughters, Malia and Sasha.

No such mystery surrounds President-elect Obama’s chosen attire. A Los Angeles Times fashion blog reports that Obama has turned to his favorite fashion standby, the union-friendly, Illinois-based designer Hart Schaffner Marx, for his inauguration attire. He will wear a Hart Schaffner Marx suit and topcoat during the inauguration ceremony, and then don a custom-made, classic black tuxedo for the evening’s festivities.

Rolling Through Inaugural Ball History

Whether the new president and first lady will set a new, more elegant social standard remains to be seen. If that is their plan, they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them. Monica Hesse of The Washington Post describes inaugural balls of the past few decades as “hideous,” arguing that they have lost their mystique and are no longer the magnificent spectacles that they once were. For example, in 1997, Bill Clinton set the record for highest number of inaugural balls held: 14. On the other hand, the catering at those balls included peanuts, ham and cheese biscuits and wine from a box, a far cry from the lobster salad and mountains of oysters at President Cleveland’s celebration.

The first inaugural ball was held at the beginning of the James Madison presidency. Since then, many inaugural balls have been held, some elegant and lavish; others disastrous, featuring quarters too tight for dancing, stolen coats and frozen canaries.

President Woodrow Wilson thought the ball too frivolous an event for so serious an occasion as an inauguration, and succeeding presidents celebrated their new administrations more modestly, with private parties and charity balls. President Harry Truman brought back the original tradition in 1949. Since then, presidents have added their own touches to their galas, with varying degrees of success.

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