Former Arkansas First Ladies Preserve History at Old State House Museum

Hillary Clinton’s dress was modeled after her wedding gown and featured antique beads from an 1890s dress an Alexander woman donated. Ginger Beebe had a broken foot and wore sneakers under her gown. Betty Bumpers found a dress in Dallas, but on the night of the inaugural ball, liked her sister’s dress better and wore it instead. That ice blue rayon dress with rhinestones, bugle and glass beads with a matching jacket is the dress on display at the “First Ladies’ Gowns” exhibit, currently housed among 22 other gowns worn at Arkansas gubernatorial inaugural balls dating back to the 1840s.

For the roughly 50,000 visitors who pass through this dark room located on the second floor of the Old State House Museum (OSHM) each year, these dresses define a time in history, but for the ladies who wore them, these gowns represent more than an evolution of fashion, but indelible memories of an era as newly minted unofficial public servants in the limelight.

Gay White remembers being completely shocked when her husband, Frank White, became the 41st governor of Arkansas in 1981, beating out incumbent governor Bill Clinton.

“I was sitting on the bed [on election night] with my feet up and Frank walked in and said, “Honey, congratulations, you’re the new First Lady of Arkansas.” I jumped up and said, “What! What do I do now?” White remembers with a laugh.

Shortly after the election, Little Rock-based designer Rohn Muse reached out about the dress.

“I had no idea what I was doing but he [Muse] made me feel very comfortable, and I told him I wanted something white because Frank loved white and I wanted it to say something about our state,” White recalls.

Taking inspiration from the Arkansas state flower, the apple blossom, and the diamond, since Arkansas is home to the only public diamond mine in the world, Muse designed a long-sleeved, chemise-style gown of white georgette with beaded diamond designs down the front.

“I felt pretty, I was comfortable and Frank loved it,” says White.

Before donating her gown to the OSHM, White wore it three times, including to a White House state dinner hosted by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.

She remembers getting dressed and noticing that some of the beading on her dress had come loose at the shoulder. She didn’t have time to repair it and grabbed a hotel sewing kit before heading to the White House. While in the back seat of the limo, Governor White stitched the beads back on the shoulder of her dress.

Collection of Firsts

The inaugural ball is the first official appearance by an Arkansas first lady, and while there are no mandated job duties for these women, there are expectations beyond being supportive spouses of Arkansas governors.

“This isn’t just an exhibit about fashion icons and what these first ladies wore to a party, this is also about what they did as women,” says Jo Ellen Maack, curator at the Old State House Museum.

Walking through the four-gallery exhibit, Maack — who has been with the museum for 20 years — points out that some of the gowns “said a lot about social issues during that time.”

As we make our way toward the case that holds Margaret Bristol Bailey’s 1937 white and silver halter dress with delicate gold threads, Maack announces animatedly, “Look at this uproar Mrs. Bailey caused, because it was a halter. It’s a halter for God’s sake, in Arkansas!” Maack glances at Amelia McRae’s black satin calf-length dress in the next case and reveals, “she showed her ankles and it was a huge scandal, and look at Eula Terral showing a little leg.”

Looking at Terral’s cream-colored satin dress — adorned with gorgeous pearls and beads, and falling slightly below the knee with a scalloped hemline — it’s hard to imagine this stunning garment caused such a stir, even in the 1920s.

“These women, I feel like I know them. They each have their own story,” Maack says.

Stories beyond their showcased gowns. These women championed causes ranging from women’s suffrage and education to prison reform and hunger relief.

During World War I, First Lady Anne Brough made appearances at suffrage rallies in support of the right for women to vote and served as an active chairman for the Woman’s Auxiliary of State Council.Betty Bumpers initiated a statewide campaign to immunize all of the state’s children against childhood diseases with her Every Child in ‘74 program, which was so successful, it was used as a model nationwide. Gay White raised awareness of vocational and technical education while her husband was in office. First Lady Ginger Beebe promoted Arkansas artists and advocated for mental health awareness.

Outside of the Smithsonian Museum, Arkansas has the largest first ladies gown collection in the country. According to Maack, it’s also the number one reason people visit the OSHM, which is why there is a robust effort underway to restore and preserve the gowns and exhibit.

Preserving History

As in life, gravity and age take their toll no matter the high quality of care.

In the late 1990s, the OSHM developed humidity- and light-controlled quarters for the gowns. The cases were specially designed to minimize the deterioration caused by light, dust and humidity. At the time, the cases were considered state-of-the-art, but now more expensive and modern techniques are needed.

With materials ranging from silk and wool, to chiffon and lace, Maack tells us there is a constant juggle to maintain the right temperature and humidity control for each dress. It was during a routine survey of the exhibit last year that noticeable signs of stress were found on some of the gowns. Upon closer inspection, it was decided that a textile conservator should evaluate the collection. OSHM staff worked closely with conservator Harold Mailand to create a prioritized list of conservation needs for the gowns in the exhibit.

In addition to repairing gowns in need, which can cost anywhere from $12,000-$15,000 for one dress, the museum has plans to “stabilize” the other dresses, buy new, “more flattering” forms and create a better overall experience for visitors.

“I want to add their jewelry, bags (located in a separate case within the exhibit) and everyday items from those times to create vignettes that tell a more complete story about these women, and not line them up like soldiers,” says Maack.

Other renovations will include buying and installing a new HVAC system to help control dust, replacing the fiber optic lights with LED, and replacing the carpet with wood flooring.

As with many restoration efforts, the challenge is funding. That’s where the Old State House Museum Associates comes in. A nonprofit established to support the OSHM, White attended her first OSHM Associates board meeting in January and walked out the chair of a fundraiser benefiting the restoration of the “First Ladies’ Gowns” exhibit.

She is teaming up with current First Lady Susan Hutchinson and four other former first ladies, including Ginger Beebe, Betty Tucker, Barbara Pryor and Janet Huckabee, to host an October 6 luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion to raise awareness and funding for the project.

“We all love Arkansas,” says White. “Our people are special and we owe it to them to preserve this part of history.”

The Gowns

Credit: Old State House Museum

Extra! Extra!

• The idea for the exhibit stemmed from a 1943 meeting held by the Arkansas Pioneers Association. After the meeting, living first ladies or their survivors donated the gowns to the museum.

• The first exhibit opened in 1955 with 19 gowns.

• The cost to repair one gown ranges from $12K-$15K.

• There are 27 gowns in the collection and four of those are being repaired.

• Current First Lady Susan Hutchinson plans to eventually donate her gown to the exhibit.

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