Lady Washington faced myriad challenges as the first First Lady of the novel United States, one of the largest being setting a non-monarchical yet still respectable tone for the highest office in the land. Her assured, yet gentle demeanor did not silence all critics, but the template was set by the end of her eight-year tenure as Abigail Adams referred to her as “the object of Veneration and Respect.” While her reputation is unquestionably admired, her fashion sense was also something to be reckoned with.
As one of the era’s richest women, she had her pick of suitors after her wealthy first husband Charles Custis passed away. The society-conscious Martha eventually chose military man George Washington and the rest is American history. Her profile gained a bit more color when Mount Vernon displayed her royal purple silk wedding shoes in 2009, a move that elevated popular opinion of her style from matronly to slightly daring. The shoes had spangled buckles that inspired historian and author Patricia Brady to tell the Washington Post that “They were the Manolo Blahniks of her time.” Statement footwear like these reflect her confidence as an established member of society. Also in 2009, new portraits of her as a 20-something were rendered, showing the 5 foot tall Washington at a never-before depicted age, far from her ever-familiar matured visage.
Washington continued her fashion streak as first lady, wearing dresses such as this brown silk taffeta gown, the only surviving fully-intact piece from her wardrobe. As her every choice was in part a statement about the character of the embryonic nation, historians have spent centuries poring over the most minute hints of what she may have worn. This could explain why a bolt of her fabric is currently estimated to cost $25,000. Samples of her wardrobe may be viewed in the Smithsonian Institution’s First Ladies exhibit at the National Museum of American History.
PHOTOS: An Insider’s Look at Inaugural Gowns