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This weekend marks the inauguration of Tennessee’s 50th Governor, Bill Lee. It will be full of festivities, including a party on Lower Broadway, a prayer service at the Grand Ole Opry House, an open house at the Tennessee Residence/Governor’s Mansion and tours of the State Capitol and Tennessee State Museum. All of the events revolve around the most important one, the inauguration, which will take place inside War Memorial Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 19 at 11 a.m. The ceremony, a joint convention of the 111th General Assembly with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Glen Casada presiding, will last about an hour and a half. The governor will be sworn in by Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins. All of the events—the majority of them free—along with ticket information, are listed at www.believeintn.com.
It’s a historic day for the state of Tennessee, especially for Governor-elect Lee and his wife, Maria, the soon-to-be First Lady of the State. So what will they be wearing to the inauguration events? As a history museum, you may not initially think that’s our concern. But it is, even if it sometimes takes us a few decades, or a century, before we interpret it. What previous governors and first ladies wore can often tell us plenty about the people and fashion of the times. On exhibition now, we have two examples from inaugurations spanning 125 years. Both are very much of their time.
The first is a coat and waistcoat worn by William Brownlow at his gubernatorial inauguration on April 5, 1865. It’s a black wool, cutaway tailcoat with 17" tails. There are two black, covered buttons on either side of the center front opening. The lapels are trimmed in silk faille. Each has three buttonholes. The lining is black silk.
The cut and make-up are in agreement with its date. Governor Brownlow was a tall man, to judge from his portrait, and the sleeve length is also consistent with that.
Brownlow served as the Republican governor of Tennessee from 1865 to 1869. Under his leadership, Tennessee became the first southern state to re-enter the Union after the Civil War and pushed to give African Americans full citizenship and voting rights. He deployed the state militia to protect African American voters and fight the Klan.
The second example, on exhibit in the temporary gallery, “In Search of the New: Art in Tennessee After 1900,” is the inaugural ball gown worn by Tennessee First Lady Martha Sundquist for Governor Don Sundquist’s first inauguration in 1995. It was made by Pat Kerr Inc., Pat Kerr Tigrett’s Memphis-based company that is internationally known for lace wedding and ball gowns.
A black formal ball gown ornamented with gold glitter, lace, and tulle, it has a fitted bodice and a sweetheart neckline filled with two layers of tulle, one of which has gold glitter dots. There are short sleeves made of several layers of tulle and lace. The center front and back waistline form points which extend below the natural waist. Its full skirt is made with several layers of tulle with gold glitter, plain tulle and lace. The underskirt is black satin. The tulle over the skirt is gathered at intervals and trimmed in black satin ribbon. The dress was a favorite of Sundquist’s. She wore it over the years to other events until she gave it to the Tennessee State Museum in January of 2001.
Sundquist was the first lady of Tennessee from 1995—2003. She is the namesake of the Martha Sundquist State Forest in Cocke County near Hartford, which is home to the Tennessee Gulf Trail and eastern hemlock, magnolia, maple, birch, and white pine trees.
Both of these outfits are on exhibit now in the Museum, so if you’re touring the Museum this weekend or in the future, be sure to have a look. Congratulations to Governor-elect Bill Lee and First Lady-elect Maria Lee. We’ll be watching what you’re wearing, in hopes it may make its way to the Museum for our interpretation, and the education of our visitors, in the years to come.
Joe Pagetta is the Tennessee State Museum director of communications.