Throughout modern U.S. history, inaugural balls have given First Ladies a high-profile chance to officially introduce themselves and their values to the American people. As one of the first formal introductions to a President and the first family in their new roles, something as simple as choosing a dress for the occasion can speak volumes.
Take, for example, Nancy Reagan’s selection of an over-the-top, glitzy ensemble that effectively foreshadowed the era of Reaganomics, or recall how Michelle Obama’s cogent choice to wear Jason Wu, a young and openly gay designer who was born in Taiwan, reflected the values of inclusivity that her husband’s administration would be known for. In this way, inaugural gowns serve as a tangible sign of our times—a fact that’s not lost on the Smithsonian, which houses many of the past dresses in their First Ladies exhibit.
On the night of Jan. 20, following the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, all eyes at the ball will at one point turn to the dress choice of his wife, Melania. Here’s a look back at 16 of the most memorable inaugural gowns.