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The Politics of Fashion

Early first ladies developed different approaches to creating an American style

By Jeanne Abrams


Heads of state and other elite members of society in late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe and America understood that clothes not only made a fashion statement, but they could also reflect levels of status and power while conveying a strong political message. Martha Washington and Dolley Madison played visible roles in setting the tone of their husbands’ administrations. Their style of dress reflected not only their personal tastes but also their desire to win public approval and support for their spouses.

George Washington’s rather modest first-term inauguration took place in New York City, the nation’s capital at the time, on April 30, 1789, when he took the oath of office before members of Congress. Washington wore a simple but well-made brown suit of American broadcloth woven at the Hartford Woolen Mill Manufactory in Connecticut, a far cry from the elaborately decorated ceremonial costumes that European kings traditionally donned for their coronations.

Although Martha Washington was still in Virginia at their Mount Vernon plantation home during the historic event, the first lady, as the president’s wife would later be known, became a national public figure a few weeks later during her travels to New York. Lady Washington, as she was hailed, was greeted by admiring citizens in virtually every town she passed through on her journey. Her trip was highlighted by a successful shopping excursion for luxury goods, including fashion accessories, in the bustling port of Philadelphia, then the largest city in the United States. Like her successors, Martha Washington soon realized she would be subject to constant public scrutiny. How the new first lady conducted herself — and what she wore — mattered.

When Martha Washington joined her husband in May of 1789 in New York, she arrived in an elegantly simple gown sewn from material made in America rather than a more fashionable European import. It was clearly a gesture made to convey the egalitarian underpinnings of the new nation. As The Gazette, the local Federalist newspaper, approvingly noted, “She was clothed in the manufacture of our Country.”

From their first encounter, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, the future second first lady and at the time the wife of Vice President John Adams, formed a close and enduring friendship. Abigail Adams’ rich and prolific correspondence provides a description of her first meeting with Martha Washington in June of 1789, when they both resided in New York. The Washingtons occupied the presidential mansion on Cherry Street in Manhattan and the Adamses rented a spacious house called Richmond Hill, overlooking the Hudson River, in what was then the outskirts of the city. Abigail Adams reported to her sister Mary Cranch, who lived near the Adams family home in Massachusetts, that “I took the earliest opportunity (the morning after my arrival) to go & pay my respects to Mrs. Washington … She received me with great ease and politeness. She is plain in her dress, but that plainness is the best of every article … Her Hair is white, her Teeth beautiful, her person rather shorter than otherways … Her manners are modest and unassuming, dignified and feminine, not the Tincture of ha’ture about her.”

It was an astute observation. Martha Washington may have worn elegantly simple gowns and behaved far differently than the French and English queens Abigail Adams had encountered when her husband served as America’s first ambassador to Britain. But Martha Washington — like her husband — had long appreciated fine, high-quality accoutrements. The first presidential couple clearly understood that dress reflected position and that the elaborately decorated and bejeweled costumes worn by European royalty signaled both political and social power.

In the new American republic, however, the president and his wife had to walk a fine line between regal dignity and republican simplicity.

In the absence of a monarchy, the challenge for the young nation would be to convey the gravitas and strength of leadership and at the same time reflect the more open egalitarian Revolutionary-era ethos that informed popular opinion. While exuding authority and the fine taste that befitted leading members of the political elite, the Washingtons attempted to establish an American virtue by eschewing the excesses of European luxury. Abigail Adams admired and as first lady tried to emulate Martha Washington’s more restrained dress — in the summer, for example, Martha Washington often favored simple white muslins — and conspicuously proper demeanor.

The diminutive Lady Washington, a plump, motherly, highly sociable woman who always exhibited a friendly manner, may have exuded republican simplicity, but she also appreciated the finer things in life. She loved beautiful clothing as well as superior decorative objects, such as handsome furniture and exquisite fine china and silver, which were displayed both in the presidential mansions in New York and later Philadelphia and at Mount Vernon. She seemed to have been especially fond of jewelry featuring garnets and seed pearls and high-quality, delicate imported lace, like the Mechlin variety favored by European royalty. Once she became first lady, she spent a yearly average on her clothing of between $600 and $800, a considerable sum at the time, but one that befitted a woman of her position and wealth.

One of Martha Washington’s surviving gowns was sewn of silk taffeta and decorated with painted flowers and butterflies, a popular motif in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Another gown, which is displayed at Mount Vernon, was probably worn during her husband’s presidency. It was sewn from brown silk and featured a fashionable bustle skirt, scoop neckline and decorative buttons that reflected Martha Washington’s emphasis on elegant simplicity. When the capital of the United States moved temporarily to Philadelphia, she indulged in a beautiful French-designed black velvet gown. Abigail Adams tended to dress conservatively and often deplored the excesses of French and British royal fashion, but she, too, had an aesthetic appreciation for attractive dresses and jewelry.

Yet, compared with Dolley Madison, Martha and Abigail appear as plain sparrows alongside a peacock. Dolley Payne had been raised as a Quaker, and her first husband, John Todd, was a rising Philadelphia Quaker lawyer when they married in 1790. Todd died during a yellow fever epidemic three years later, leaving behind a young widow and a toddler son. Until her marriage to James Madison in 1794, she had customarily worn modest clothing in subdued colors. Afterward, Dolley Madison cast off her Quaker upbringing and adopted a style that emphasized color and texture.

Unlike her two predecessors, as first lady Dolley Madison appears to have basked in public attention, at least when she was the subject of admiration and praise. Whether living in Philadelphia, in the nation’s later permanent capital of Washington or in Virginia at the Madisons’ Montpelier plantation, the charismatic Dolley Madison dazzled and sparkled. Her flamboyant style was a marked contrast to that of her more-reserved husband, James, who was always clad in black from head to toe. Her fashion sense, especially her love for French finery, might have displeased and even shocked Abigail Adams.

As divisions between the nascent Federalist and Republican political parties grew, ceremonial practices and even style of dress came under increasing scrutiny. The Washingtons and Adamses were fervent Federalists; the Madisons and James Madison’s mentor, Thomas Jefferson, were committed Democratic Republicans.

Ironically, and often to their chagrin — although the first two presidential couples intentionally tried to maintain a style that emphasized simplicity and dignity — their detractors accused them of trying to bring back monarchical court practices.

Dolley Madison, though a Republican, adopted her own more accessible and flamboyant style as first lady. She even welcomed the sobriquet of “Queen Dolley,” as she was dubbed, a title the previous first ladies likely would have disdained.

Yet, even though Dolley Madison often dressed like royalty, she became the most successful of the three in developing a distinctly American style, one that resonated with both political players and the broader population. According to Holly C. Shulman, editor of Dolley Madison’s correspondence, the third first lady “interpreted European dress, manners and food through a purely American filter,” an approach that melded the Federalist desire for high style and the Republican emphasis on simplicity.

James Madison’s 1809 inauguration in Washington as the fourth president of the United States introduced his wife’s exuberant style, and it delighted many of the couples’ supporters in the capital. At the same time, Dolley Madison also appears to have made an effort to raise the profile of the presidency and her position as the first lady. For the inauguration, she wore an elegantly simple cambric gown, but one embellished with a long train as well as an eye-catching bonnet topped with a white plume. The National Intelligencer, Washington’s leading political newspaper at the time and a vocal supporter of Jefferson and Madison, referred admiringly to Dolley Madison as “The Presidentess.”

Although the newly elected president and his first lady greeted several hundred guests at their home in a rather modest manner after the official ceremony, the evening affair was more extravagant. The glittering inaugural ball, the first of its type in the nation’s short history, was held at Long’s Hotel on Capitol Hill and was attended by more than 400 members of Washington’s elite, including politicians and their wives, local social leaders and visiting dignitaries. None of the Madisons’ predecessors had hosted a ball on the same evening as the presidential inauguration and it proved exceedingly popular. Still, James Madison may have been somewhat lost in the throng, as he tended to shrink and become awkward in crowds. But the new first lady was in her element and exuded her customary charm.

Dolley Madison appeared draped in an elegant French buff-colored velvet gown, wearing stunning pearls and “crowned” with what became her signature type of headgear, a turban, in this case sewn of velvet and silk and decorated with tall bird-of-paradise feather adornments. Tall and statuesque, Dolley Madison was easily visible in the crowd as the feathers bobbed on her plumed hat. But Dolley Madison also aimed at an aura of restrained elegance when she eschewed the diamonds long favored by European royalty for more modest pearls.

The numerous ensembles and distinctive jewelry Dolley Madison wore during the presidential years, including her dress at the inauguration, were far more elaborate than either of her predecessors. Her extravagance not only made a vivid social impression but also placed a serious strain on the Madison finances. But her easy, welcoming demeanor and French-inspired fashion style made her popular with many Americans, and the often sparkling and courtly clothing she donned on social occasions conveyed the importance of her position. Her friend and prominent writer Margaret Bayard Smith noted admiringly that at the inauguration ball not only had Dolley Madison “looked a queen,” but she also exuded “dignity” and “grace.”

As time passed, Dolley Madison continued to indulge her passion for beautiful gowns and accessories. Her friend Ruth Barlow, wife of the American minister to France, often sent French fashions from Paris that the first lady requested, including “large headdresses.” One dress on exhibit at the National Museum of American History is a hand-embroidered silk satin gown, featuring decorations of delicate flowers and butterflies. Some of her ensembles were even more ornate. According to an observer who had visited the White House in 1811, “Her Majesty’s appearance was truly regal, dressed in a robe of plain satin, trimmed elaborately with ermine, a white velvet and satin turban, with nodding ostrich plumes and a crescent in front, gold chains and clasps around the waist and wrists.” Even in the face of American antipathy for monarchy, Dolley Madison earned accolades as an American quasi-“queen.”

After the War of 1812, despite the destruction of the White House, Dolley Madison’s presence grew even more visible, and her social events continued unabated in the Madisons’ temporary quarters. If anything, the crowds at her parties grew as the residents of the capital searched for a path to revitalize their community. In one instance, Dolley Madison reigned at a packed reception in honor of the new British minister to the United States. The British minister reportedly took one look at her elegant rose-colored gown, which featured a long dramatic train, her glittering gold jewelry and an impressive turban embroidered with a gold crown, and declared, “She looked every inch a queen.”


Jeanne Abrams is a professor at the University Libraries at the University of Denver. She is the author of several books, including Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health.

Martha Washington shared her husband’s love of horses and was an accomplished rider. Katharine Pittman, who interprets Martha Washington, can sometimes be seen in the Historic Area wearing a simple but finely detailed riding habit. (Tom Green/The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

The First First Ladies

In her new book, Jeanne E. Abrams explores how Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison created the distinctly American role of first lady. All three worked to enhance the dignity and authority of the presidency without acting too much like a queen. Though Madison was the most flamboyant, Abrams shows that each of the three influenced the others. And although they lived in an era when women could neither vote nor hold office, their influence — through social networks and civic causes and support of their husbands — extended well into the political sphere. First Ladies of the Republic was published in March by New York University Press.

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