Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Washington D.C. First Lady Fashions through History

1. Martha Washington along with her husband were possibly one of the wealthiest couples but they never lived on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. George was Martha's second husband and she already had a plentiful purse of her own, although her dress reflects a more simple and modest design.

It may not seem like the most beautiful gown in the collection but the early years in our country were simpler times.  The description does say painted on silk, I imagine that would have cost a pretty penny.  The first one cent coin was not struck until 1787. What was the currency before that time? It wasn't beads but this elegant necklace states Martha could afford to dress it up.

2. Dolley or Dolly Madison was one of the most popular First Ladies. She even pitched in during Jefferson's presidency as hostess at White House events. Congress always welcomed her to sit in on their sessions, as she was given an honorary seat on the floor of Congress. Her biggest claim to fame was, no, not, Dolley Madison ice cream, she saved the portrait of George Washington during the burning of the White House by the British during the War of 1812. She also was the First Lady and American citizen to respond to the telegraph. James Madison was Dolley's second husband, her first husband, John Todd and their three month old son died of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia.

Todd House in Philadelphia (1791-1793) open for tours

Montpelier Madison Home 1817-1837

Through the irresponsible behavior of Dolley's son, the Madison's became financially challenged. After the death of her husband, James Madison, the estate of Montpelier fell into hard times and was lost. Dolley later sold writings of James Madison to Congress in two separate installments, the first for $55,000 and the next for $22-$25,000. James Madison, a Founding Father often referred to as the Father on the Constitution, Father of the Bill of Rights, Secretary of State who worked closely with Jefferson on the Louisiana Purchase and also followed fellow Virginian, Mr. Jefferson into the White House. Imagine what a budget of $75-$80,000 would buy today.

1837 - 1849 Lafayette Square, Washington D.C.

3. Mary Todd Lincoln loved purple, it is a royal color and not stunning on everyone. Mary Todd Lincoln gets a rough write up in history books. Let some of those recorders of history go through what that woman went through and take another shot at it.  I hope she felt some sort of royalty living in the White House during some of the most tumultuous years in her life and in the history of the Untied States. I hope to show you her serving ware during her White House years in a further blog. Yup, you guessed it's purple.

4. Julia Grant chose American-made clothes becoming to her person and her purse. I too have trouble shopping for perfect fit clothes, so the price helps me to decide. I like her style and sounds like I admire her sassy as well. Grant could not have been an easy man to be connected to with all he had going on, in general.

After her husband's retirement, he became involved with his son's financial business.  Another partner was involved in the Wall Street venture and swindled all of Grant's money. Grant suffered and died from cancer in 1884 but before he died he wrote a memoir. After his death, Mark Twain's publishing company published the Memoirs and it became a best seller of the times. Julia died in 1902 and yes, you guessed it. Julia is buried along side her husband in Grant's Tomb in New York.

5. Lovely things were written about Lucy Webb Hayes. She had a distinct and unflattering personal style. Isn't that the nicest thing you can say about a woman? She favored modest clothing that covered her throat and arms. Tell you what, I'm with her. Critics save yourself the self awareness now, "if you have it", you don't flaunt it. This gown is a bit busy and distracting but who am I to judge. It does attract attention. The details alone are compelling.  Can you imagine the red carpet hosts, the buttons, the bows, the lace and brocade , the satin.. layers, folds. lines, floral design, the train.... She wore it twice and credits her dressmaker M.A. Connelly of New York.  Someday we may see a knock off of this design on the runway at New York Fashion Week. Many styles come back to haunt us.  Why did I ever discard that hand-made knit poncho my grandmother made for me?

6. Caroline Scott Harrison helped to establish the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and became the first President General of the DAR. She also had the First National Christmas Tree in the White House and had electricity installed, although she was hesitant to touch the switch. She was also responsible for managing to eradicate the rodent and insect problem at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue which I am sure future First Ladies were eternally grateful.

I like her dress, I only wish I had the waistline to wear it! Her inaugural gown and the rest of her wardrobe were Made in the United States.

7. Frances Cleveland was the fashion icon of the 1800's. She sure looks like the most attractive first lady of the time but it could very well have been just her youth that made her look so stunning. She was 21 years old when she married Grover Cleveland, twenty eight years her senior in the White House. To date, it is the only time a president was married in the White House.

"False story" is what they called it way back when... there was a claim she abandoned dresses with bustles and that hastened its demise. Whoever was responsible, thank you. Women still have way too much to do to shimmy into that little black dress.  We are still waiting for that woman in the White House that wants to burn the bra. Huzzah!

8. Edith Roosevelt wore a Robin egg blue silk dress with a design of plumes and birds woven in gold thread seems befitting for the wife of Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt, the intense nature lover.

9. 1915 - 1921 Edith Wilson, I must admit my ignorance for I knew nothing about this remarkable woman. First off her dress and style of fashion was my favorite.  It could easily pass as elegant for generations to come, it came from Paris, the House of Worth. 

Edith was the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson. She is a direct descendant of Pocahontas. Her great-grandmother was a sister to Thomas Jefferson, she was also related to Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee, a select group of Virginians. When her husband suffered a stroke while in office, she took over additional duties and decided what information was to make it to the President. She examined each correspondence carefully in making those decisions. Was she our first female president?  A Republican senator labeled her "the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man." Shrug, I like the way see addressed the situation.

10. Grace Coolidge 1923- 1929 representing the flapper era. I prefer the blue dress, it is my favorite color. The style during those days just seemed to be so fun and carefree. No one suspected what was to follow, the Great Depression. Seeing that she gave her dress to her maid, I would have to say she had style and grace.

First Ladies hardly ever receive the recognition or notoriety they deserve and we have had some remarkable women living in the White House. It is not really about their fashions is it? Although everyone talks about what "she" was wearing. Shouldn't it be more about how she handled those years in the Executive Mansion?  Did she wear those years in the White House well and serve with dignity? I think anyone reading their history would be hard pressed to find one who did not fulfill her obligation to our country. I call these gals the golden age and pioneer women setting the stage for tomorrow's ladies.

After writing this blog, I discovered the National First Ladies Library website, I was looking for a confirmation on Dolley Madison. I may get some of my facts misconstrued but they have obviously done their homework and would be a great reference to use.  It looks like an excellent research site to delve more into the lives of the Presidents First Ladies.  All of my information and photographs of the dresses came from a recent trip to the Smithsonian National History Museum. It is still a favorite Smithsonian but they are all great! I learned some things about the First Ladies. I never knew.

March is Women's History Month

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