WASHINGTON — All eyes are on the president on inauguration day, but it's the first lady who captivates the public's attention on inauguration night.
Michelle Obama dazzled in a ruby red gown at the inaugural balls Monday night.
The softly pleated dress was created by Jason Wu, the young Taiwanese-born designer behind the one-shouldered white silk chiffon gown that she wore to the inaugural balls in 2009.
That white gown is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington.
"People have always looked at what the first lady wears," notes exhibit curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy. "She's a very public figure. She belongs to us. She represents us, and so we're interested in how she presents herself."
Laura Bush wore a silvery gown to celebrate George W. Bush's second inaugural in 2005.
The Smithsonian exhibit also features Hillary Clinton's beaded lace gown, worn in 1993. Also on display: the Hollywood glamour of Nancy Reagan's one-shouldered gown in 1981, so different from Rosalynn Carter in 1977, who wore a chiffon dress she had worn several years earlier.
But the fashion favorite is Jackie Kennedy's 1961 gown.
Public interest in the first lady's attire - and the designers who create those looks - dates back to the 1700s, says Graddy.
"Really, since Martha Washington [in the late 1700s] people have always been interested in what the first lady is wearing," the curator admits. "Newspaper accounts, accounts of social activity in Washington, would say what the first lady was wearing."
Inaugural ball gowns epitomize the celebrations that captivate the capital every four years.
"The inauguration is a combination of things. It's a very solemn civic ceremony, and it's also an amazing party," Graddy says.
This year, the partying was scaled back. There were two official balls, far fewer than the 10 for President Obama's first inauguration.
According to historian Richard Norton Smith, such festivities are driven by the need to recognize and reward campaign contributors and not presidential ego.
"And then, of course, the poor president has to do something he almost never otherwise does, and that is dance in public," Norton Smith says.
Luckily for President Obama, most of the attention is focused on his wife.