What Women Wear to Inaugural Balls

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The first lady knows all eyes will be on her at an inaugural ball -- in addition to setting the pace for White House style, her gown will go down in history, preserved for posterity at a Smithsonian exhibition. If you're going to the ball, though, you have more leeway. Black tie? White tie? Long gown or short frock? It depends. Your main goal is to sparkle and look your glamorous best.

Setting the Tone

While there were inaugural balls before 1949, they've only been a continuous tradition since Harry and Bess Truman celebrated his election. Eleven first ladies have attended inaugural balls since. While the ball gown is often a first public look at the first lady's style, it's one of many. She'll have plenty of other chances to influence fashion trends. Most, according to the website National First Ladies' Library, have indulged their own preferences for the inaugural ball rather than trying to make a political point -- from Mamie Eisenhower's pale pink to Jackie Kennedy's role in designing her own to Rosalynn Carter's blue gown that she already had worn once to a governor's ball. It's their party, after all, and they'll wear what they want to.

So Many Parties

In January 2013, the Washington media was full of advice about what to wear where. There were only two official inauguration balls for President Barack Obama, but also dozens of state-sponsored events, celebrity-attended bashes and public parties. Some were invitation-only, but many could be attended for the price of a ticket. That left plenty of room for debate about what to wear -- and debate it Washingtonians did, for weeks before the events.

White or Black Tie?

Traditional formal events might be white or black tie, and there's overlap for women's wear between the two, according to etiquette guide Emily Post. White tie means strictly a floor-length formal gown. Black tie can include a long gown, a dressy cocktail gown or a particularly glam little black dress. Check the trends for the parties you'll be attending. If you'd like to break out the glitz for this likely once-in-a-lifetime event, accessorize with jewelry and a special hairdo. Before you choose your handbag, shoes and wrap, though, consider the elements.

Practical Considerations

Because inaugurations are in January and Washington can be chilly, rainy, snowy or a sleety combination, past attendees advise a practical approach, especially if you'll be party-hopping. If you want to wear strappy sandals, carry a handbag big enough for a pair of foldable ballet flats to wear outside. If you need a coat, remember you'll be checking it, perhaps repeatedly, so don't wear something you wouldn't risk losing. One blogger recommends wearing a bold color if you'll be meeting friends -- you'll stand out in a sea of little black dresses. Finally, if you're worried about someone wearing the same gown, a registry service can help keep track of who's wearing what -- although, experts say, so many people will be packed into the parties that no one likely will notice.