In a historic first, masks worn by Dr. Jill Biden to the inauguration of President Joe Biden are now part of the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection. Though they’re just small pices of cloth, Biden said, “they represent the enormity of what we all faced at the time.” The masks, too, “represent the moments of courage and kindness that helped us through the worst of it. The strength and the resilience that we vowed to rebuild and move forward.”
The face masks are part of the First Lady’s donation of her inaugural outfits—designed by Alexandra O’Neill, founder and designer of Markarian, and Gabriela Hearst, founder and creative director of her eponymous brand Gabriela Hearst—to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
In a ceremony attended by both O’Neill and Hearst at the National Museum of American History, Dr. Biden presented both looks. “This day is so much more emotional than I ever imagined it to be,” Biden began her remarks, before thanking both designers. She also thanked the Smithsonian for “memorializing the history that is sewn into every stitch of these ensembles.”
According to the Smithsonian, it is the first time a first lady’s day and evening outfits for the inauguration were donated simultaneously. Typically, first ladies donate the gown they wore to the inaugural balls; however, for President Biden’s inauguration, there were no balls due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These two ensembles were a voice for me in one of the most important days of my life,” Biden said. “They spoke to the American people, and now they will continue speaking to generations to come. They will help not only tell my story, but the story about what we as Americans experienced together—of the hope and love and unity that we held onto, and how we let those values guide us forward. In the future, when educators like me bring their classes through the exhibit, I hope that these dresses will help them teach their students about what started on that January day.”
Biden, who wore a custom Markarian outfit for today’s ceremony, spoke about the power of fashion, and how clothing can help her communicate. “Clothing is an art, and an articulation. It’s a manifestation of a moment in time, it’s history. I’m deeply honored to play a small part in a big moment of our history, alongside two visionary designers,” she said.
The Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection is one of the most popular exhibits at the National Museum of American History—something Markarian’s Alexandra O’Neill doesn’t take lightly. “It’s definitely the ultimate honor to have one of your pieces displayed in the Smithsonian,” O’Neill tells T&C from a train en route to Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian event. “I was thrilled that it was going to be included. I know that the First Lady always donates a piece to the Smithsonian from her time as first lady, and I had no idea that one of ours would be selected.”
For O’Neill, first lady fashion evokes something timeless and elegant—an outfit, she says, “that’s going to withstand the test of time.” The blue dress she created for Biden to wear to President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 definitely checks all those boxes.
Looking back at the origins of the swearing-in dress, O’Neill remembers, “When we first started talking with Dr. Biden’s team, it was us and a few other designers being considered. We didn’t even know until she walked out that she was going to wear [our dress]. We were always hopeful, and excited to be considered for it.”
Dr. Biden’s team had asked them to send through ideas; the First Lady wanted a look that would be meaningful, impactful, and appropriate for the occasion, according to O’Neill. “It was a really collaborative process with Dr. Biden and her team,” the designer adds. She also did a ton of research into first lady fashions throughout American history, and around the world.
“We knew people were going to be looking into every detail when it came to the look, so we wanted to make sure we really thought about everything,” O’Neill says. For the color, the Markarian team presented a few different options, before they selected an ocean blue shade that “signifies trust, confidence, and stability.”
The fact that the silk face mask that Markarian made for the outfit will also be displayed in the Smithsonian is something O’Neill loves. “It’s great,” she says. “It was such a unique time in American history and something that the entire world was really going through together. So it’s nice to have that included and to have that as a marker of what was really going on during the time.”
The Markarian ensemble is the first outfit worn to a swearing-in ceremony to be added to the First Ladies Collection since Eleanor Roosevelt donated the lavender velvet dress she wore to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration, according to curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy. In her remarks today, Biden said to O’Neill, “I’m so proud that your work is now memorialized here at the Smithsonian, and I hope that your story inspires other young people to pursue their own design dreams.”
Like O’Neill, designer Gabriela Hearst feels equally thrilled about her work being added to the museum’s collection. Hearst, who designed the First Lady’s evening inaugural ensemble, said at the ceremony today that “I have to pinch myself to believe that the inaugural attire that we made will be part of the First Ladies collection.” Speaking directly to Biden, she added, “As a designer, I couldn’t think of a better muse.”
To watch the inaugural concert and firework display, Dr. Biden wore a matching Gabriela Hearst dress, coat, and face mask embroidered with the federal flowers of the states and territories.
“She always pushes me try new things,” Biden said of Hearst during her speech at the National Museum of American History. “To step out of my comfort zone. Time and time again when I think that there’s no way I’m going to like her suggestion, she’s right, and I love it!” But for her inaugural evening outfit, Biden said, “I didn’t need any convincing.”
The First Ladies Collection currently features gowns worn by Martha Washington, Mary Lincoln, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Michelle Obama, among others. After today’s ceremony—which was attended by many in Biden’s family, including her sisters Kim, Kelly, and Bonny Jacobs, daughter Ashley, granddaughters Finnegan and Naomi Biden, sister-in-law Valerie Biden Owens, and nieces Missy and Casey Owens—the First Lady’s outfits were immediately added to the collection.
Dr. Jill Biden’s inaugural ensembles are now on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as part of The First Ladies Collection. Admission is free; no tickets are required.
Emily Burack (she/her) is the news writer for Town & Country, where she covers entertainment, culture, the royals, and a range of other subjects. Before joining T&C, she was the deputy managing editor at Hey Alma, a Jewish culture site. Follow her @emburack on Twitter and Instagram.