Tradition of inaugural balls dates back over 200 years

WASHINGTON - Inaugural balls have changed surprisingly little since 1961, when Ken Grozbean watched his father rent out hundreds of tuxedos for John F. Kennedy’s first night in office.

Nine more men have taken the oath since that day -- President Barack Obama wasn’t even born at the time.

"To be honest with you, not much has changed," Grozbean, who owns Lustre Formal Wear located about two blocks from the Capitol, said. "It's pretty traditional."

Since he and his brother took over the family business in 1977, Grozbean, 54, has rented out the same basic ensemble for every inauguration ball: a black tuxedo with a notched lapel, white shirt with cufflinks and a black waistcoat or cummerbund. Prices start at about $50.

Customers have flooded the store for the last few days this week to rent outfits in time for the two official inaugural balls Monday night accompanying Obama's second inauguration, a tradition that dates back more than 200 years.

James Madison held the first official inaugural ball in 1809 and charged $4 per ticket, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which organizes the swearing-in.

Although the concept has stayed the same, each president tailors the event to the image of his administration, said Harry Rubenstein, a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, who specializes in inaugural history.

Jimmy Carter, for instance, renamed them less formal "parties" to contrast with the imperial image of the Republican presidents preceding him. Woodrow Wilson chose not to have inaugural balls at all in 1913, and the tradition did not return until Harry S Truman's second inauguration in 1949.

"The inauguration is a time when [presidents] introduce themselves to a larger world audience," Rubenstein said. "Every aspect about the event is a statement about your administration."

This year, Obama chose to reduce the number of official inaugural balls from 10 to just two -- a decision carefully calculated to set the tone for his second term.

"They're trying to make these events a limited number, but open to the public," Rubenstein said. "They're trying to make it exclusive on the one hand, but more austere."

This year, the main ball quickly sold out of $60 public tickets, while the Commander-in-Chief Ball is free for invited members of the military. In all, an estimated 40,000 ball-goers are expected to pack into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Unofficial balls, hosted by state societies and nonprofit organizations, are a hot commodity as well. There are more than 60 taking place throughout the weekend at Washington-area museums, hotels and convention centers. One, the Vaudeball, will feature poetry, burlesque and sideshows, including fire-spinning.

The George Washington University's inaugural ball sold its 5,500 tickets less than a day after they went on sale, which surpassed its 2009 sales by about 1,500, Michael Peller, events assistant vice president said.

For unofficial balls, many women are choosing to wear less formal cocktail dresses instead of the traditional elaborate ball gowns, said Maxine Rizik, supervisor of Rizik's dress shop on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, long the go-to shop for women's formal wear.

Although far fewer people are attending this year’s inauguration, Rizik said noticeably more customers have been coming in to buy dresses and gowns for this weekend.

With the costs for formalwear and transportation, a couple can quickly rack up an evening costing from $500 to $1,000, even with cheaper ticket prices.

"For a lot of people, it’s a once in a lifetime experience," Grozbean said. "You can’t put a price on that."

(Reach reporter Ian Kullgren at ian.kullgren@shns.com.)