Dignity in a Silk Dress:

The Embodied Global Ecosystem of

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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Repositioning Martha Washington's Self-Fashioning

I first “met” Martha Washington’s purple silk gown, owned by the New Hampshire Historical Society, (NHHS), in the collections storage of The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association on May 26, 2017. 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, Virginia and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.[1]

The findings of my doctoral thesis (Georgetown University, 2019) press against the beliefs that Martha Custis Washington was America’s “First Fashionista,”[2] the emphasis that as a widow she was “young, pretty, rich. . . ”[3] and the assertion that “her contemporaries knew her as a woman of . . . high fashion.”[4] Unsubstantiated statements such as these continue to influence public understanding of Martha Custis Washington and her consumption patterns.

While it was outside the scope of my thesis to address every counterfactual belief assigned to Martha Custis Washington, it is important to note that these claims in particular make unsupported assertions about her body and its attractiveness, and prescribe her an identity without critically analyzing the full complement of primary sources – to include her personal wardrobe. My work attempts to demonstrate what is gained when objects such as these rigorously converse with textual evidence.

Breaking with the normalized impression that popular historical imagination has mapped onto Martha Washington as an elite consumer of luxury goods, she rejected a slavish devotion to eighteenth-century fast-fashion trends, particularly evident in her purple silk gown, which bears evidence of her wearing over five decades.[5] There is no indication that Custis Washington was solely focused on amassing luxury items -- her preference for prudence and frugality in dress and personal appearance are well-documented. ​

 

This study also materially demonstrates that Martha Custis Washington’s sartorial choices were utterly unique, breaking with what was considered normative for elite women in the early Anglo-American South. It also underscores that not all affluent Anglo-Americans strictly wore English silks due to the permeable textile trade. Consumption patterns in early America also demonstrate that not every member of the gentry was necessarily conscious of projecting “Britishness” through their sartorial choices, a belief that continues to be debated in the field of eighteenth-century Anglo-American dress history and material culture studies.

Through intentional decisions on what she chose to purchase, wear, and re-wear, and a set of values-based character traits and social manners she learned when a young woman, Martha prepared her body for both public and private identities. These choices give us insight into how the social mores of eighteenth-century colonial Virginia intersect with young women who possessed a certain amount of personal agency afforded by an Anglo heritage, family wealth, and human enslavement. Such early choices, and the freedom to make them, influenced Mrs. Washington’s later conduct as the “Wife of His Excellency.”

The purple silk gown she owned is a product of a global nexus of makers. Through their multiple and overlapping biographical narratives, this single object has the power to envoice diminished, misinterpreted, or underrepresented individuals, most critically the enslaved seamstresses who were tasked with caring for and mending Martha Washington’s clothing: Moll, Caroline Branham, Charlotte, Betty, and Ona Judge.

It is not only Martha Custis Washington as the wearer of the gown who is relevant here, or the makers and producers of the materials, but also, and crucially, the individuals who created and refashioned the garment. The enslaved seamstresses' embodied presence within the gown provides evidence of their lives through stitched signals: their skills, physical labor, and constructions of selfhood and resistance.

 

The material legibility of these captive female laborers in the gown and their participation with it are just as important as Martha Washington’s -- and deserve equal treatment. In this way, objects powerfully serve as conduits of personal agency (or lack thereof), harnessing human stories and attempting to recover absences, which encourage the flourishing of human dignity.

Replicating the Gown as Research Method

I'm delighted to announce my partnership with Gainsborough Silk Weavers in Sudbury, UK to reproduce the purple silk dress textile. From this fabric, and based on evidence within the gown and surviving similar styles from the 1750s, I will recreate the gown as it would have appeared "off the dressmaker's needle."

In part, this effort will enable us to:

Understand more about the original dressmaker(s) technique and skillset, and the materials available in 1750s Virginia

Move closer to "seeing" what the gown looked like prior to decades of remaking/refashioning, mending, letting-out, and damage to the original textile, enabling further analysis of Washington's exertion of personal preference, agency, and non-normative fashion choices

Apprehend more about the knowledge and skills of the enslaved seamstresses who were tasked with major refashioning and mending efforts in in the 1760s-1790s

Encourage public education and engagement with the gown while helping to preserve the original garment

 

For professional or academic inquiries regarding my research, please get in touch:

[1] Martha Custis Washington’s purple gown: object 1903.009.02, the New Hampshire Historical Society; Martha Washington’s silk taffeta gown: object 1987.0080, the Smithsonian Museum of American History (not currently on view); Martha Washington’s brown gown: object W-1523 in the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (not currently on view).

 

[2]  The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, “The First Fashionista,” accessed October 10, 2018, https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/martha washington/martha-washingtons-style/.

 

[3] For the assertion that Martha Custis was a young, pretty, and rich widow, see Mary V. Thompson, A Short Biography of Martha Washington (Massachusetts: Benna Books, 2017), 7; and Brenda Haugen, Martha Washington: First Lady of the United States (Signature Lives: Revolutionary War Era) (New York: Compass Point Books, 2005), 23.

 

[4] The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, “The First Fashionista,” accessed October 10, 2018, https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/martha washington/martha-washingtons-style/.

 

[5] The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, “The First Fashionista.” See also Thompson, A Short Biography of Martha Washington, 7. Regarding “fast fashion” in the eighteenth century, see Chloe Wigston Smith, Fast Fashion: Style, Text, and Image in Late Eighteenth-Century Women’s Periodicals. Edinburgh University Press, 2018. Smith contends that the fashion coverage in periodicals such as The Lady’s Magazine (1770–1832) modeled an early form of “fast fashion,” in which detailed textual descriptions of full-length fashion plates of the latest trends provided detailed and accessible visual guides to emulating styles – which would be replaced by the following issue’s next new trends.

(c) 2021 Cynthia E. Chin. All Rights Reserved.