Mary Lincoln had a privileged upbringing that primed her to lead the life of the President’s wife. While her husband was presiding over the Civil War, slavery issues, and massive national reconfigurations, Mary was ensuring that the 16th Presidential administration and the White House reflected a confident, progressing nation. Though only roughly 5 feet tall, she dressed in opulent, bold dresses that were known to cost up to $2,000 each. Many of her dresses were low-cut and emulated popular European styles, particularly that of Empress Eugénie of France. Her personal seamstress Elizabeth Keckley tailored each gown to her specifications and designed many of her flower-topped headdresses. The downhome President was none too pleased with her extravagant wartime spending style
Mary Lincoln liked to wear ball gowns with very long trains but also without shoulders and President Lincoln once remarked that he thought she needed “a little less tail and little more neck” instead. She was also known for wearing elaborate head-dresses of multiple roses, and in a letter to his wife, one Senator described Mrs. Lincoln critically, as wearing a “flower-pot” on her head. (National First Ladies’ Library)
Her White House refurbishment went far past its $20,000 Congressional budget. Her constant overspending earned her nicknames like “The Madam” and “Hellcat” among White House staff. Still, the sociable Mrs. Lincoln viewed her expensive personal taste as an important example for the struggling country.
“The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity… If he is elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs, but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent.” (Mr. Lincoln’s White House)
Lincoln understood the role of First Lady as a pre-eminent hostess and dressed for the role. She was an ardent abolitionist that made strides in establishing the White House as a veritable French-style coffee house of intellectuals.