At the end of a long night of inaugural balls, First Lady Michelle Obama took off her gown and did not see it again for more than a year -- until Tuesday morning -- when her dress, shoes and jewelry became part of the Smithsonian's First Ladies Collection.
"These gowns and this exhibit uniquely define a moment in our American history," said Mrs. Obama to an audience that included her mother, Marian Robinson, and a group of close friends from Chicago.
It was a sentimental send-off for the outfit, designed by Taiwan-born Jason Wu, who shot to fame in an only-in-America story when Mrs. Obama surprised him by choosing his one-shouldered silk chiffon gown to wear on Jan. 20, 2009.
"To say that she has changed my life is really an understatement," said Wu, 27. He put his hands on his heart when he turned to the first lady and said, "Mrs. Obama, thank you."
When Mrs. Obama spoke, she stood shoulder to shoulder with the dress, which was attached to a specially designed mount, or headless mannequin. (Later, it was swiftly moved to a glass case in a new gallery featuring the gowns of 11 first ladies, from Mamie Eisenhower to Mrs. Obama.)
The First Ladies exhibit at the National Museum of American History is one of the most popular at the Smithsonian. Mrs. Obama tipped her hat to the historic and cultural significance of the collection, adding it was still a bit strange to her that anyone would want to put one of her dresses in a glass case.
"So, here we are. It's the dress," Mrs. Obama said. "And I have to say, to be honest, I am very honored and very humbled, but I have to say that I'm also a little embarrassed by all the fuss being made over my dress. Like many of you, I'm not used to people wanting to put things I've worn on display. So, all of this is a little odd, so forgive me.
"But, at the same time, I truly recognize the significance of this day. This gown –- and all of the items that we'll see in this wonderful exhibit –- help us connect with a moment in history in a very real way.
"When we look at the gown that Jackie Kennedy wore 50 years ago, or the one that Mary Todd Lincoln wore more than 100 years before that, it really takes us beyond the history books and the photographs, and it helps us understand that history is really made by real live people," Mrs. Obama said.
"The detail of each gown –- the fabric, the cut, the color –- tells us something much more about each single first lady. It's a visual reminder that we each come from such different backgrounds, from different generations, and from different walks of life."
Mrs. Obama's ensemble on display includes:
*The Wu gown -- a white satin jacket by the New York designer was part of the outfit but not on display. The gown has organza flowers with Swarovski crystal centers.
*Loree Rodkin jewelry. The triple rose cut diamond earrings by the Los Angeles designer come in at 61 carats. The "Michelle signet ring" is white gold and black rhodium with rose cut diamonds, 13 carats. There are 13 white gold and diamond bangle bracelets, 13 carats.
*Jimmy Choo heels. White satin.
After the speeches -- and a break while the dress was carted over to the case for a quick installation -- Mrs. Obama and her mother went to the gallery to take a look, as did Mrs. Obama's friends.
Mrs. Obama included in the audience 32 students -- almost all female -- studying fashion design at Huntington High School on Long Island, in New York, an extension of her female mentoring program. She met with them before and told the audience they were invited because "they sent me this book of beautifully designed inaugural gowns of their own creations, and I had so much fun looking through all the designs."
She told Wu's inspiring story of coming to the United States as an immigrant and pursuing his dream of being a fashion designer.
Said Mrs. Obama, "In the end of the day, today is about much more than this gown. It's also about how, with enough focus and with enough determination, someone in this room could be the next Jason Wu. Someone in this room could be the next Barack Obama. It's about how the American story is written by real people –- not just names on a page.
"And it's about how something you create today –- whether it's a dress, or a painting, or a story or a song –- can help teach the next generation in a way that nothing else can."
FOOTNOTE: And what goes in the "First Ladies" collection when the day comes -- as surely it must -- that the nation elects a female president? The answer, according to the museum is . . . no one knows for sure.