Okay, so I feel I have to address an issue, I, as a thoroughly ignorant Brit, didn’t know until now.
WHY DID NO-ONE TELL ME MARTHA WASHINGTON WAS A FASHION QUEEN?
Now, granted, I’ve not had much exposure to American history, outside of my gran showing me Gone With The Wind, and the little I gleaned growing up from Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Simpsons, and National Treasure. Watching Turn and having international friendswho are enthusiastic about their history was a massive epiphany for me. Wait, there’s a whole new arena of history I haven’t explored? Sweet!
But on of my pre-conceived notions from all that pop-culture was that Martha Washington was a Founding Grandmother. You know…
Looks like little Red Riding Hood’s granny…
Look, granny! Carries knitting in one hand (possibly patriotic knitting. After all, Betsy Ross doesn’t just get dibs.)
Why Grandmamma, what big 1780s caps you have! (all the better to be First Lady with, my dear…)
From the paintings and iconography of Martha Washington, I’d have been very surprised if she didn’t own a rocking-chair. And I’m sure, in later life, she did. But that wasn’t ALL there was to Martha….
Wait, THIS is Martha, too?!
At first, there seems nothing to connect the staid, sensible-looking old lady in the first few portraits to this reconstructed painting of young Martha Washington, or the “Widow Custis.”
One of the first things I was struck by was that for a long time, Washington wasn’t really “George Washington” pre-Revolutionary War. He was the ‘Widow Custis’ husband’.
Now, according to Wikipedia:
“Martha Washington has traditionally been seen as a small, frumpy woman,
who spent her days at the Revolutionary War winter encampments visiting
with the common soldiers in their huts.”
I think the Widow Custis’ rather fabulous wardrobe would beg to disagree!
See the colours up there? Blue - especially that deep indigo blue - was tradionally one of the most expensive dyes available. No-one who could afford indigo is EVER going to be accused of being frumpy by 18th century peers.
Also - I could write a whole essay about Martha Washington and the colour yellow.
This particular shade, known as “Imperial yellow” ,was a big thing in both 18th century East and West. Like the fad for Chinoiserie that was prevalent at the time, this was a cultural fashion import from China.
According to an article by the University of Nottingham,
“Yellow, as one of the five colours derived from the Five Elements Theory surpassed
the other colours when it became the emblem of emperor. It was thought
that the emperor was located in the centre of the five directions and
the centre was represented by the element earth and the colour yellow.
The idea struck a chord with the 18th century west, and yellow became an increasingly popular colour in gowns for the upper class, gradually filtering down to the middle classes towards the end of the 18th century. Back in the 1750s when Martha was the young, attractive, fiery Widow Custis, this would have made one heck of an impact, especially in the colonies. It showed her wealth and status in one go as well as - her ability to source fabrics from the other end of the earth.
I’m also going to add that when marrying Washington, Martha’s wedding gown of choice?
Imperial Yellow. Plain and frumpy this ain’t. Martha’s practically wearing a solid gold dress.
(Reproduction on display at Mount Vernon)
And, keeping up that ‘indigo blue/purple’ is one of the most expensive dyes around theme?
May I present the First Lady’s extremely sassy wedding shoes? In purple silk and gilt thread - and with that ahem, ‘imperial yellow’ silk lining peeping out there?
to quote the excellent @americanrevolutionhotties, these were the ‘Manolo Blahniks’ of their day. And they certainly say “you are one LUCKY man, Georgie boy” in spades (although George was by no means a shabby dresser himself, the gorgeous red-haired dork.) Martha was 27 when she married him, a young, attractive widow and businesswoman with two children and an incredible inheritance from her previous husband. This must have been the powerhouse wedding of the century!
Being an absolute costume nerd, I did a bit more research into Martha Washington’s wardrobe. What else did this fashion forward woman have in her linen press?
This gown’s an absolute confection! Pink, embroidered satin, muslin and fine lace sleeves - and don’t froget, touch of yellow in the florals there. Martha still kept her style!
It’s sometimes incorrectly named her ‘inaugural ballgown’, as it’s part of the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Inaugural Gown collection. Martha strongly disapproved of George being President and actually didn’t show up for his inauguration. She was at home, busy ‘packing’. (So you can add strong-willed and independent to the list of amazing things Martha is, too)
There’s also this rather fantastic gold brocaded ballgown. The colours have faded, but you can see traces of the original colour in the bodice -and can you imagine it glittering by candlelight at a dinner table?
In her later years, Martha adopted a simpler transitional 1790s style that’s mostly commonly shown in the portraits of her as an older lady; practical, in keeping with her status, but a little more restrained (as befits a sober older lady, by the standards of the time) Still, amazingly classy in silk…
(Also, plus-size, and still rocking it. You go, girl!)
Loving the button detailing, very chic.
Sadly, these are the only gowns that survive intact from Martha’s wardrobe. Martha was nothing if not practical and a lot of her and George’s clothes were cut up and distributed to admirers and friends. But luckily, Mount Vernon has a great collection of these remnants of finery, so I’m going to post the “scraps of history” here, with a few thoughts on what they might have been…
Gorgeous red brocade with blue and gold trailing flowers! You can still see the folds where it was pleated, probably into a robe francaise. According to Mount Vernon, the little circle you can see cut-out is too small to be an armhole. It was probably used by her granddaughter to make a pin-cushion.
MOAR IMPERIAL YELLOW. YESSS, MARTHA. WEAR ALL THE YELLOW.
And this lovely green damask - hey, there’s something that probably looked like the gown Martha wears in Turn! Full points, costume designers!
AMAZINGLY similar lace, saved from Martha’s wedding gown. The exquisite lace sleeves would be re-used on other gowns as an accessory. Again, 10/10, Turn costume designers!
one of my favourites out of the Mount Vernon collection. The peach and white and brown… oh, would look stunning on a brunette! I can only imagine this in an open robe, or a robe francaise, or anglaise, or…
*grabby hands at fabric*
well, look who’s rocking 18th century fuchsia and imperial yellow together! DAMN IT MARTHA, GIVE ME YOUR FASHION SENSE.This is my other favourite, in case you couldn’t tell…
and finally, this gorgeous white handpainted silk. You can only imagine what this must have looked like in a gown.
Fashion history lesson over, kids. Spread the word. Martha Washington was an outrageous, daring, fabulous fashion queen.