WASHINGTON — Jill Biden says her Inauguration Day outfits, now featured in a Smithsonian museum exhibit about first ladies, were a "voice for me on one of the most important days of my life."
The dresses — one blue, one white — with matching coats and face masks "spoke to the American people then, and now they will continue speaking to generations to come," she said Wednesday, before mannequins dressed in her clothes were formally added to the exhibit.
"They will help tell not only my story, but the story of what Americans experienced together," the first lady said at the museum. It was her first public appearance in two weeks, following the removal of a cancerous lesion from her face and another one from her chest.
"This day is so much more emotional than I ever imagined it to be," she said.
First ladies typically donate their inaugural ball gown to the Smithsonian Institution, but President Joe Biden had no such celebrations. He took office at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when such large indoor gatherings were discouraged.
So Jill Biden parted with the ocean blue tweed dress and coat that she wore to her husband's swearing-in at the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021, and the ivory silk wool dress and cashmere coat she wore at the White House that evening. They were designed by Alexandra O'Neill, founder and designer of Markarian, and Gabriela Hearst, founder and creative director of Gabriela Hearst, respectively.
In recognition of the historic nature of the inauguration, the face masks the first lady wore were also added to The First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History.
She praised both designers, who spoke at the ceremony. Jill Biden said she met O'Neill when the designer was just starting out.
"Her designs seemed both timeless and new, and that was exactly what I was hoping to find, because young people showed up and voted for Joe in historic numbers, and I wanted to reflect the passion, creativity and hope that day," the first lady said.
She credited Hearst with always pushing her to "step out of my comfort zone" and try new things.
"But I didn't need any convincing about the design of this dress," Jill Biden said. "My focus on Inauguration Day was being a first lady for all Americans," and Hearst understood.
"She adorned this dress with the flowers of every American state and territory. And she placed Delaware, my home, just above my heart," Jill Biden said.
Hearst said it's hard to believe her work will be in the exhibit.
"I have to pinch myself," she said. Addressing the first lady, Hearst said, "As a designer, I couldn't think of a better muse."
Jill Biden said the face masks are small pieces of cloth but they "represent the enormity of what we all faced at the time: A pandemic that has changed our world forever."
Afterward, the mannequins were installed in the exhibit, which is among the Smithsonian Institution's most popular attractions. It features inaugural gowns worn by first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Melania Trump and others. The museum will reopen to the public on Thursday.
Since Helen Taft in 1912, every first lady who has been approached by the Smithsonian and who has an inaugural gown has donated it, said Lisa Kathleen Graddy, a curator of American political history at the museum.
The museum is "always interested" in having both the daytime and evening outfits to "show a different aspect of the day and the first lady's participation" in the inauguration, but most of them just give up the inaugural ball gown, she said.
"We are very lucky that we have the space in this particular case to be able to display both" from Biden, Graddy said.
Jill Biden thanked "the team" for helping her "at a time when we just couldn't fly to New York to do in-person fittings," as well as her family and staff for their support.
"It's really an honor to serve as your first lady," she said, as her voice cracked with emotion.