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Stitches of Resistance:

Narratives of the Enslaved Seamstresses In Martha Washington's Purple Silk Gown

by: Dr. Cynthia E. Chin

Martha Washington

Dress & Textile Fragments

ca.1745-1755

Materials: Silk

Header: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, W-3249

Middle: Sleeve or Neckline Trim, The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, W-544/C

Bottom: Skirt Hem, The New Hampshire Historical Society, 1903.009.02. Used with permission.

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This piece was originally published on History, the Journal of the Historical Association, March 24, 2021.

 

A single object was the subject of my doctoral dissertation: a heavily faded purple silk gown owned and worn by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802), the wife of ‘His Excellency’, President George Washington. One of three surviving intact dresses belonging to Washington, the garment visibly still retains her embodied presence. The gown’s underarm areas are watermarked by her perspiration, its skirt hem frayed due to the constant friction of her walking — all evidence of her corporeal form activating and inhabiting the gown. However, Washington is not the only individual embedded within the dress. The physical presence of Moll, Caroline Branham, Charlotte, Betty, and Ona Judgeenslaved seamstresses at Mount Vernon, the Virginia plantation home of the Washingtons, are likewise inextricably present within this object. Evidence of their bodies, lives, and physical exertion also remain as they cleaned, mended, and remade this gown over several decades. 

The Gown: Condition and Findings

During my initial exploration of the gown, I was struck by how much of the silk textile has suffered from decades of wearing, improper storage, and display in indirect and direct sunlight.[1] Once-vivid and almost garish, the textile has faded to a light brown or blue-gray rather than the fuchsia, aubergine, and egg-yolk colours that are found preserved beneath some sections of the gown’s neckline trim, also visible on a well-preserved fragment in the collection of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.[2] Clues such as the presence of ‘ghost’ stitch holes within the garment, multiple thicknesses and colours of sewing threads, and a complete reconstruction of the skirt indicate that the gown experienced several moments of mending and refashioning in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Such periods of intense and concerted efforts to resize and restyle the gown indicate that Martha Washington wore the dress several decades after it would have fallen out of fashion, from when it was made in the late 1750s until possibly just before her death in 1802. 

Ultimately, my inquiry into this object, in parallel with her biography, other object histories, and archival records reveals that even when it was first constructed, the purple silk gown was a sartorial outlier in what was considered normative for elite women in early Anglo-America. This aids us in understanding Martha Washington’s personal choices and preferences, and likely motivations for her persistent and intentional preservation of this particular gown. Crucially, the intertwined biographies within this object form a material precipitate of slavery itself. Through the enslaved seamstresses’ physical, captive labor embedded within, the gown becomes a powerful example of the constant relinquishment of their agency and selfhood to ensure the safeguarding of another’s.

Re-centering the Discussion: The Enslaved Seamstresses at Mount Vernon

My continued work on this gown and its embodied political and socio-cultural ecosystems attempts to create a composite, though still very incomplete, picture of the enslaved seamstresses at Mount Vernon. Based on what can be known about the enslaved population at Mount Vernon during the Washingtons’ marriage, we are able to identify the likely individuals who would have been tasked with mending and re-fashioning. Unfortunately, their records are scant and can only provide glimpses into their lives, relationships, and skilled labor. In some cases, fragments emerge: their partners and children, the clothes and material possessions they were given, periods of sickness and childbirth, ‘behavioural’ reports from overseers, powerful moments of resistance — and, in the case of Ona Judge, self-liberation.[3]

Records indicate that Moll, Caroline Branham, Charlotte, Betty, and Ona Judge were the enslaved housemaids responsible for caring for the Washingtons’ clothing and completed sewing tasks such as making repairs and attaching trim to finished garments. Chiefly, they were charged with making clothing for the enslaved population across Mount Vernon’s five farms — nearly 577 people during George Washington’s lifetime.[4] They, and their work, were very much a part of the Washingtons’ correspondence. In a 1796 letter, George Washington described Ona Judge as ‘the perfect mistress of her needle’.[5] But the same was not said of Charlotte, whose work was considered ‘tolerable’.[6] On June 5, 1791, Washington wrote to her niece Fanny Bassett Washington: ‘I sent by Hercules some rufles for my little Boys bosom [chest] which I beg you will make Charlot hem. . .’.[7] Apparently, Washington was not pleased with the condition of the ruffles when they were returned to her. 

These were the women whose hands and bodies touched, cleaned, folded, and altered the purple silk gown, their stitches and pleating of the garment still just as evident as the shape of Martha Washington’s somatic form. 

Next Steps: Reproducing the Gown as a Way of ‘Seeing’

The next stage of my research continues its attempt to recenter how we approach this object and its histories. Taking what we know about these women and the types of documented self-preservation and counteraction they exerted, I will seek to discern how we can read their stitches, still present, in the contexts of their limited personal agency and resistance. One of the methods for ascertaining such knowledge is replicating the gown.

 

Replicating or reproducing the gown as it ‘came off the dressmaker’s needle’ will allow viewers to visually track how these women changed the gown over time, making their skilled work more legible. Based on material evidence, comparing what the gown might have looked like when it was first made in the late 1750s to how it appears after significant and multiple episodes of remaking in the late eighteenth century presents a stark visual contrast. This material way of ‘seeing’ opens multiple discussions on how we have — or have not — previously understood the multiple biographies of this dress. It additionally foregrounds the labor of these captive seamstresses in an effort to move their lives towards perceptibility, acknowledgement, and dignity.

Footnotes

[1] Martha Washington’s purple silk gown (1903.009.02) is owned by the New Hampshire Historical Society (NHHS). The gown, acquired by the NHHS in 1919, is one of three known, surviving, intact Martha Washington gowns; the two others are held in the collections of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in Mount Vernon (W-1523) and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (1987.0080).                                                                                              

[2] Object W-3249, Gift of Mrs. Osborne O. Ashworth, 1988, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. This particular fragment was likely excerpted from a now-missing skirt panel, stomacher, or sleeve ruffle, as the rest of the gown survives intact.

[3] Ona (Oney) Judge served as lady’s maid to Martha Washington. Ona was the daughter of Betty, an enslaved seamstress at the Washingtons’ Mansion House Farm, and Andrew Judge, a white English tailor. During Washington’s presidency in Philadelphia, Ona escaped on 20 May 1796 by leaving the house while the Washingtons were at dinner. See T. H. Adams, “Washington’s Runaway Slave, and How Portsmouth Freed Her,” Granite (NH) Freeman, May 22, 1845, reprinted in Frank W. Miller, Portsmouth New Hampshire Weekly, June 2, 1877. For more on Ona Judge, see Erica Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. New York: 37Ink/Atria Books, 2017.

[4] See ‘Slavery at Mount Vernon’, https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/

[5] George Washington to Oliver Wolcott, 1 September 1796

[6] Charles MacIver to George Washington, 17 June 1786

[7] Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, 5 January 1791

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