Michelle Obama isn't the first First Lady to display a flair for style. There was, of course, Jacqueline Kennedy with her off-white sleeveless gown that looks modern even today. But even before Kennedy, first ladies were pushing the boundaries of style.
"We can go back to Dolley Madison, who had her own style in which she drew from French style and kind of made it into an American conglomeration of style," Betts said.
One of Madison's gowns is part of the Smithsonian exhibit, a silk-satin open robe embroidered with flowers, butterflies and other delicate designs.
"Grace Coolidge had amazing style," Betts said. "She was the first First Lady to appear in newsreels and she was the first to really reach out to people. We saw her being very active and athletic, like Michelle Obama."
Coolidge's flapper-style evening dress is also on display at the museum, crafted of black and gold metallic lace, gold lame, and velvet trim.
"The inaugural gown is almost outside of fashion," Betts said. "It's not like you're looking at an Oscar gown on the red carpet. It's like the world's greatest red carpet, and it's this amazing symbol of where the country is at that moment in time."
A gown can also be symbolic of what might happen in the future. At today's ceremony, Michelle Obama said she hoped her dress sent a clear message. "With enough focus and with enough determination, someone in this room could be the next Jason Wu," the First Lady said. "Someone in this room could be the next Barack Obama. 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."
ABC's Alice Maggin contributed to this report.