Inaugural Style

    The Inaugural speech may set the agenda for a Presidential administration, but the Inaugural wardrobe sets the tone. Think of Mamie Eisenhower's exuberant pink frocks in the can-do post-War '50s; Rosalynnn Carter's recycled gown in the down-in-the-dumps '70s, Jackie Kennedy regalness in the everything-is-possible '60s. And Michelle Obama's citrus daytime sheath from Isabel Toledo and light-as-air Jason Wu evening gown in fresh-start 2009. "I wanted to pick a very optimistic color, that had sunshine," said Toledo, who created the day outfit. Click back on the revealing (and mostly red, white or blue) Inauguration choices of America's modern First Ladies to see how Michelle's choices stack up.

    At the Inaugural Balls, the first couple twirled to the song "At Last," which resonated on many levels - at last Obama's two-year quest for the White House has ended with his swearing-in; at last America has overcome its racial divide; at last we have a First Lady who's not afraid to take fashion risks. No Oscar de la Renta here, Michelle Obama has made it clear that she'll use her new visibility to highlight younger, edgier American designers, and her Inaugural Ball gown underscored the point. The one-shoulder dress was made by 26-year-old designer Jason Wu, who found out the First Lady had chosen his gauzy creation when he saw her on television. Asked in December whether he might be an Inauguration Night contender, he shrugged it off. "Oh, that's a long shot," he said. Now, as with most Inaugural gowns, Wu's dress will be displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's century-old First Ladies Collection. Clearly, with Michelle Obama at America's fashion helm, nothing is a long shot anymore.

    Michelle Obama's swearing-in outfit looked like spun gold, but it was actually a lemongrass-colored wool lace coat and dress by Isabel Toldeo, with a cardigan and scarf to fend off the Inauguration Day chill. But besides the dress's touch of formality, what was most surprising about the pick was that it wasn't the work of old-line White House favorites (Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Ralph Lauren) or of better-known young designers (say, Narciso Rodriguez or Tracy Reese). Perhaps Mrs. Obama, like her husband, is signaling us to expect the unexpected. Toledo, after all, is a Cuban-American, with 30 years on Seventh Avenue, an avant garde reputation and very little name recognition: She doesn't advertise, she doesn't stage massive runway extravaganzas, and she's sold at just a handful of stores, like Barneys New York (which sent out a "We Love Isabel Toledo" email to customers the day after the Inauguration) and Ikram in Chicago (where Michelle shops). Red carpet? Toledo is hardly a fixture -- but we're willing to bet that, by Oscar time, all those pretty-young-Hollywood-things will be clamoring to wear clothes.

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    Just as the outfit was an unexpected shade of is-it-yellow-or-is-it-green, so were Michelle Obama's accessories a pleasant jolt. Her olive green gloves were from J. Crew, while her olive pumps were a tad more upscale -- Jimmy Choo's "Glacier" kitten heels.

    The biggest shock of the 2000 Presidential election was, of course, that it took the U.S. Supreme Court to decide it. The second-biggest shock: that Laura Bush -- after two decades in one of America's shrewdest political families -- would wear such a dowdy ensemb to George's first Inaugural. Instead of bringing in one of Seventh Avenue's big guns -- Arnold Scassi primped up Barbara Bush's style -- Laura chose Michael Faircloth, a little-known Dallas designer who had been turning out her safe (and sorry) public-appearance clothes back to the 1999 Texas inaugural.

    Before his stint dressing Laura, Michael Faircloth's claim to design fame was creating outfits for the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, so perhaps it's not surprising that his Inaugural gown was all about fireworks. Though Mrs. Bush preferred a tad more coverage than the pom-pom girls, her satin and lace gown, laden with Austrian crystals, was far too matronly for a 55-year-old -- even a 55-year-old ex-librarian. br/>

    Is it any wonder that Oscar de la Renta has become something of a house designer for modern White House occupants? After earning his Washington stripes (and stars) transforming Hillary Clinton, he was tapped by Laura Bush for the 2005 Inaugural. The results: different party, same polish. For Bush II, de la Renta turned country-club Laura into a D.C. swan with a delicately beaded ice-blue gown that accented her curvy body and creamy skin.

    Chic, simple and with a hemline that flattered, Mrs. Bush's 2005 oath-of-office outfit was a stand-out winter-white coat and dress by Oscar de la Renta. However, it took a village to dress the Bush clan for all the events: Carolina Herrera made a taffeta shirtwaist for the hot-ticket Black-Tie-And-Boots gala; Peggy Jennings created a crystal column for the Candlelight Dinners, and Badgley Mischka turned twins Jenna and Barbara into saucy but sexy First Daughters.

    Even before Hillary Clinton got to Washington, she (and her ubiquitous headbands) made it clear that fashion was not at the top of her agenda. And how. Her 1993 Inaugural designers were a raft of Arkansans who earned unanimous not-ready-for-prime-time reviews. Her first transgression: the dizzying plaid suit by Connie Fails for the swearing-in. Bad enough that it violated every keep-it-simple rule, but Hillary topped off the outfit with a decidedly un-Jackie chapeau that many compared to a flying saucer.

    If she had known that Inauguration Day would be a metaphor for her early years as First Lady, Hillary Clinton might have re-thought her gown. For her highest-profile star turn, she chose an overwrought crystal-covered confection by Arkansas designer Sarah Phillips, done in a shade of purple last seen lining the royal family's robes. It got more pans than her health care plan.