British author L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between gives us a popular quote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In many ways that is true. On the other hand, there are similarities in those differences. The language of clothing is one of those areas where you can see similar desires and expectations between the 18th century and what we do today. For example, what we wear depends on what we’re going to do (workout at the gym, go to the office, graduate from college, etc.), how much we want to conform to society’s expectations of appropriate attire and modesty, and how much we can afford to spend on our apparel to meet that expectation. The same was true in the past.
I’d like for you to consider Martha Washington’s wedding attire as one example, but first let me share some insights into what clothing says about the wearer.
In the 18th century, how you dressed spoke volumes about your status in the community and society. The fashionableness of the style, the quality and hue of the fabric, as well as the wearer’s movements and stance combined to tell others the person’s status, whether high or low or somewhere in between. Keeping up with fashion trends then, as now, meant following the European fashion magazines which were sent to the colonies regularly. Indeed, it’s recorded that Thomas Jefferson sent Parisian fashion magazines to his daughter when he was visiting France.
The style could also indicate, though not always, where the person was from, either by American colony or another country. Clothing suggested the gender and occupation, how rich or poor, and what kind and amount of activity they engaged in. And much like today, what a person wears can also reveal their attitude toward the society they live in. Consider how differently a person would dress if she were a scullery maid versus a personal maid to a planter’s wife versus the planter’s wife, for instance. The same would be true of a field hand versus a dancing tutor versus a lawyer in town.
At the time of Martha and George Washington’s marriage on January 6, 1759, women of a higher status preferred silks brocaded with colorful flowers on a white background. (Brocade is an intricate design on fabric, often raised.) Martha was no exception in preferring silk, especially on her wedding day. Who wouldn’t want the gentle swish and sway of silk, right? Another aspect of choosing her gown is that she would have wanted something she could wear again for other special occasions. They didn’t buy a gown to wear once and put away as a keepsake then. Nor would she have considered a white gown; that fashion came later, in the 19th century.
According to the Mount Vernon historians, Martha’s gown was made of yellow silk damask (meaning reversible) with a petticoat of cream silk highlighted with interwoven silver threads with (perhaps Dresden) lace trim. Her dainty high-heeled shoes were made of purple satin with silver ornamentation. The historians interpret the message of her outfit as, “The combination of expensive, imported yellow and purple silks with silver and gold decorations would have produced a regal appearance that conveyed her elevated social and economic standing.” You can see a photo of the dress and shoes at the above link. I’ve been to the museum where the outfit is on display and it is far lovelier in person than in the photo. But I do agree with their interpretation.
Here’s a short snippet from the book where Martha is preparing for her marriage ceremony, waiting for her sister to come and style her hair:
Where was Nancy? Soon I must go downstairs. I checked the lay of my deep yellow brocade overdress, arranging the silver lace trim at the edge of the bodice until satisfied with its appearance. A white silk petticoat with silver woven into the fabric peeked through the split skirt of the overdress. I stepped into purple satin heels, smiling with pleasure at the silver trimmings. I didn’t often have reason to don such finery, but marrying one of the most distinguished and respected men in the colony certainly justified my choice. Fortunately, the outfit had arrived from London in time to tailor the dress to fit my small figure. Why couldn’t the London factors send clothing meeting the measurements sent instead of sending garments either too big or, worse, too small?
A light rap sounded at the door to my bedroom. I turned as it swung open and Nancy beamed at me. “You’re beautiful, Patsy.”
“I’m glad you’ve arrived. Come, dress my hair for me.”
“I’m sorry for being so late. Now we must hurry. It’s almost time for the ceremony. Everyone is so happy for you.” Nancy pranced into the room and then stopped suddenly to perform a quick pirouette. “What do you think of my gown?”
I inspected the rich green dress with rhinestones sewn across the bodice, a cream silk petticoat visible through the sheer material brushing the tips of her gold satin shoes. “It’s quite lovely. But then you always dress divinely.”
The cover of my historical fiction story of Martha’s life, Becoming Lady Washington, includes an artist’s interpretation of George and Martha’s wedding, an image housed in the Library of Congress. It is not accurate, though, in portraying her attire. In 1759, there were no photographs (obviously) and no sketch artist or portraitist hired to create an image, at least not one that has been found to date. I imagine the man who created the image based it on other similar weddings he’d attended. I particularly enjoy the group of women to the right, apparently oohing and ahhing over the proceedings!
Another portrait in the LOC comes from the C.M. Bell collection, dated between 1873 and 1916, and shows how fashionably dressed Martha was as a young woman. Please note that Martha died in 1802. The LOC dated this image based on the fact that it is contained in Bell’s collection and those were the years he was a photographer. I think he likely took a photo of an earlier oil portrait. You can see in the picture the fine fabric and bows and lace, her posture and hair style all speak to her status. Women wearing such attire would not be working in the kitchen, but have the wealth necessary to support a more leisurely life style.
So while the styles and fabrics we wear today have changed, the way we interpret another’s position in society hasn’t changed all that much. We still tend to believe the clothes make the man/woman, that we “dress for success,” or to reveal our rebellion toward societal expectations by wearing clothing others deem in appropriate. I think that attribute of people will likely never change.
P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which I send out most every month, including news like new covers, new releases, and upcoming appearances where I love to meet my readers, along with recipes and writing progress. Thanks and happy reading!
Visit www.bettybolte.com for more on my books and upcoming events.
Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.