|First Ladies Hall pamphlet, 1968.|
(Note that Mrs. Johnson's gown, far left, is the most recent dress on display.)
I’m sure that she offered a snack but the real treat lay spread out on a large table: intricate drawings of the First Ladies’ gowns, which were then displayed on mannequins in vast glass cases in the Smithsonian Institution, along with the muslin patterns she was creating.
Going back to a 3rd grade homework assignment, First Ladies completely, utterly fascinated me. But during the 1960s, just a few anthologies contained brief sanitized biographies of the women. Bottom line: if you were interested, it was largely about the gowns.
Mrs. Sally Taft had been commissioned by the collection’s curator to preserve the designs and details of the dresses that were starting to fall apart after years of being exhibited under bright hot lights. A very fine seamstress, she had worked in couture at some of New York’s best department stores. Her correspondence with the curator, which resides in the Smithsonian’s archives, suggests that she came to the project through a mutual acquaintance at Julius Garfinckel’s, an exclusive women’s clothing store in Washington, D.C.
One of my mother’s friends had arranged the visits with Mrs. Taft. Thrilling! Every few months during my last years of elementary school, instead of walking home from school I went over to her house. I knew a great deal about the First Ladies and she knew everything about the dresses. We found lots to talk about.
The ladies who followed Eleanor Roosevelt into the modern era, along with Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolly Madison, held little interest for me. They were far too popularized. But the mournful mid-19th century women whose husbands were military heroes (of a sort), who never wanted to come to Washington, rarely saw visitors, holed up on the dark second floor of the White House – very intriguing. Perhaps unbalanced, too, although I didn’t quite know the word.
One of my clearest memories is of Mrs. Taft describing how the gowns exuded the ancient odor of perspiration.
So many years later, the Smithsonian’s exhibition smartly focuses on role and image with minimal whitewash. Some gowns and memorabilia are also displayed. The staff includes experts in chemistry and textiles as well as historians.
Sally Taft’s muslin patterns are history, too. It’s hard to argue with technology. What I love most about this story, though, is that in 1966 the Smithsonian curator didn’t think the job called for an academic. She was just looking for the best dressmaker she could find.
*Mrs. Sally Taft was not related to President Taft.