First Lady Michelle goes to the ball - but will her dress impress the fashionistas?

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Call it a first lady's burden. Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the 16th American president, used to complain that because everyone was always scrutinising her she was forced to wear the most expensive outfits available. Rosalynn Carter, by contrast, fashion historians will recall, was altogether less worried about wardrobe etiquette.

Yet over the generations there have been first ladies who have revelled in their duties as mannequins for American designers, among them, of course, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan. As next Tuesday's inauguration approaches, speculation about the gown Michelle Obama will pick for the inaugural ball is beyond fever pitch. Because while Tuesday is Barack Obama's big day, on Tuesday night all eyes will turn to his wife. Mrs Obama will be acutely aware that with this one fashion choice she is setting the tone for herself for the four years to come. Inaugural wardrobes and in particular inaugural ball gowns have come to be viewed almost as a reflection of America. As historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony told the Boston Herald last week: "They are symbols of our country. They reflect around the world an image of our country."

Plenty of former presidential wives have pulled it off on inauguration night, including Florence Harding (wife of Warren) who in 1921 donned an iridescent flapper number made of tulle and covered in sequins and beads. You can see it still at the Smithsonian Museum. Mrs Kennedy drew what she wanted – an ivory gown and cape – and took the design to Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan to have it made. She caused a sensation. Mrs Carter committed a faux pas appearing in a dress she had worn at both inaugurations of Jimmy Carter as governor of Georgia.

Mrs Reagan wore a glittery one-shouldered gown which many criticised as "too Hollywood" and too opulent looking for the 1981 recession. Hillary Clinton tried hard, but no one much liked her 1993 purple taffeta. Likewise Laura Bush's red lace dress, the work of a Texan designer, drew scant praise in 2000.

For Mrs Obama the trick will be balancing glamour with the subdued atmosphere of the times. "I'm sure she won't have an over-the-top gown studded with diamonds," said etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige, former social secretary to Mrs Kennedy. "It will be something suitably quiet for the times."

Since Vogue put her on its pages in late 2007, there has been little denying Mrs Obama's status as a fashion icon. Never mind that not everybody was enthralled by her black dress with splashes of Martian red on election night last year. Women's Wear Daily, the fashion bible, recently launched a website on which designers were invited to contribute sketches of how they think she should look. (Check out Isaac Mizrahi and Christian Lacroix.) The Washington Post has also run a contest for its readers to submit ideas for gowns.

Bobbi Queen, Women's Wear Daily senior editor, says Mrs Obama will be the first president's wife since Mrs Kennedy who has "the presence and elegance that would intrigue women".

The official inaugural ball tradition dates from 1809 when Dolly Madison, the first lady, hosted a gala at Long's Hotel, with 400 tickets sold at $4 each. The ball became a highlight of Washington society until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson called his off, deeming it too frivolous. In 1917 it was cancelled because of the First World War. For many years charity balls became fashionable but Harry Truman revived the official inauguration ball in 1949.

Inauguration diary

Hollywood elite flocks to Washington – Li Lo too

*If Hollywood feels a little less "liberal" this week, that's because the celebrity elite has disappeared to Washington. So great is the exodus that Vanity Fair has employed a crack team of investigative journalists to compile a full list of its members. It boasts more than 150 entries, from card-carrying lefties (Barbra Streisand, Joan Baez) to film industry power-brokers (Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, George Lucas), rock superstars (Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Bono), rap moguls (Jay-Z, Usher, LL Cool J, Will.i.am), leading ladies (Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, Sharon Stone) and pretty much anyone who has ever adorned a deep-pile red carpet. Strangely, the magazine deemed Lindsay Lohan, below – who will attend the Neighbourhood Inaugural Ball on Tuesday – insufficiently glamorous to warrant inclusion.

Obama's buzzword a favourite with Kennedy

*Will Barack Obama top the soaring rhetoric of his election campaign? Boy-wonder speechwriter, Jon Favreau, 27, is toiling day and night to make sure that Tuesday's inauguration address cements his master's place in history. If he's searching for inspiration, Favreau could do worse than visit www.speechwars.com. It has archived every inaugural speech, and can create graphs that illustrate how presidential "buzzwords" have changed since 1789.

They show how "xenophobia" (a favourite of early inhabitants of the White House) has been replaced with "globalism". "Union" peaked in 1845, with 25 mentions, but is now obsolete. "Freedom" is on the rise, getting 25 of its 175 mentions in George Bush's last address. Meanwhile "change" was used 10 times by John F Kennedy, and nine times by Bill Clinton – but pretty much ignored by everyone else.

Show stopper? Sorry, too busy on the school run

*The inaugural ball gown may the first important sartorial decision Michelle Obama will make as first lady, but as a busy mother in the middle of moving house, finding time to pick the dress is anything but easy.

Sources within Mrs Obama's entourage say the first lady-in-waiting will only decide what dress she is to wear on the inaugural day itself. "Given the moving details that have gone in to the last two weeks, Mrs Obama has not been able yet to select her attire for Tuesday," a source said. Spontaneity is admirable, but given the mixed reception her election night outfit received, you'd have thought Michelle might pull out more stops to avoid any "frock horrors".

Guy Adams

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