06/06/2010 01:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Meaning of The Dress

Smile wide and engaging, newly bobbed hair as luminescent as the organza-flowered, Swarovski crystal-dotted silk hanging to her right, Michelle Obama looked radiant presenting her Jason Wu inaugural gown to the Smithsonian's first ladies exhibition on Tuesday.

But as she took the podium before a giant polycarbonite flag and star-shaped lights in the National Museum of American History's Flag Hall, even the first lady seemed a bit overwhelmed by the attention. "I am very honored and very humbled," she began, "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 have worn on display."

It was perhaps a typical scene: A glamorous, high-profile woman pointing out how she is like all the rest of us. But when Mrs. Obama admitted to this particular how-did-I-get-here moment, it seemed to ring true. Moments before, she sat with a mix of poise and the slightest anxiousness, legs tucked gracefully below her seat, hands clasped tightly in her lap. For a woman who blushed and encouraged Congressional leaders to sit down instead of giving her a standing ovation during January's state of the union, having an article of clothing turn into a full-blown media event might be a bit much.

But of course, this was no ordinary frock. As Mrs. Obama spoke about all the wonderful inauguration memories inspired by seeing the dress again, her voice glittered with nostalgia. "That day was so hectic for us. I remember the inaugural parade and how the president and I stood and we waved until every last band walked by," she said, before poking fun at some of her Chicago buddies who left early to get dressed. "All of my friends left us in the stands by the way," she joked, while pals like Valerie Jarrett laughed from the audience. "[They said] 'We have to get ready for the ball,' and I said, yeah, so do I."

"But," she continued, "I will never forget the moment that I slipped on this beautiful gown. I remember how just luscious I felt. And the president and I were announced onto the stage for the first of many dances, and I'll cherish that moment for the rest of my life."

If it is endearing to watch a first lady tease her friends from behind a podium, then it's completely disarming to hear her admit to feeling "luscious." And when she said she would cherish her first moments in the dress for the rest of her life, once again, her sincerity was apparent.

As her remarks turned to the oft-repeated notion of the American dream providing unchecked opportunity to those who work hard -- as it did for the Taiwan-born Wu -- the dozens of sharply dressed Huntington High School fashion students who came to the event after sending inaugural designs to the White House became transfixed, their faces frozen as she spoke. When the first lady said that "someone in this room could be the next Jason Wu. Someone in this room could be the next Barack Obama," one emotional student wiped her eyes.

Sure, we were there because of a dress. But inaugural gowns mean so much more than the copious amounts of labor and silk required to make them. Who doesn't remember Nancy Reagan beaming in one-shouldered, winter white satin or Hillary Clinton kicking up her heels in cinched violet lace? Who could forget Laura Bush's crystal-embellished ruby red show-stopper? All of The Dresses represent new beginnings; they're the hand-sewn symbols of the fleeting moments in our history when, for many in our country, anything seems possible.

Sometimes, for teenagers as well as adults, it's nice to be reminded. As Mrs. Obama said: "This gown is one of the most tangible things I have left to remember that day, and that's why it will always hold a special place in my heart."