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The President’s New Clothes

From the Collection: The Presidents

George Washington Gets Dressed (or: The Threads of Power, A Brief History)

By Gene Tempest

Illustration by Gene Tempest

On the eve of the nation’s first presidential inauguration, President-elect George Washington was preoccupied by an urgent and troublesome matter: What would he wear to his swearing-in ceremony in New York City? It was a question of unprecedented national significance.

“I think one of the most important surprises in the post-revolutionary period is the extent to which fashion mattered,” says Dr. Linzy Brekke-Aloise, an associate professor of history at Stonehill College, whose doctoral dissertation, Fashioning America, examined how interwoven early American politics were with high fashion. “I think it surprised them as much as it surprises us.”

In the 18th century the president’s closet was perhaps more important than any other stately room or chamber. And, arguably, no sartorial choice in American history mattered more than the first one: the inauguration suit to be worn on April 30, 1789.

Global supply networks and international enmity left Washington in a vulnerable state of undress: he had just fought a bloody war of independence against the very people who were the best weavers in the world. To publically sever the link with the colonial past, it was vital that the president’s suit be made of American, not English, cloth. But it also was crucial that Washington look good, and American manufacture was in its infancy.

Then came an encouraging rumor that in Connecticut there was a cloth-maker of promise who might be able to produce what Washington in a January letter termed “superfine American Broad Cloths.” The entrepreneur in question was one Jeremiah Wadsworth, a former supplier to the Continental Army, who only a year earlier had founded the Hartford Woolen Manufactory.

Hopeful, Washington dispatched General Henry Knox, a close friend and former army comrade, to investigate in person. From January to April, letters traveled back and forth between Hartford, Connecticut and Mount Vernon, Virginia. Some included samples of cloth. Others had button sketches in the margins. Washington was impressed with the Manufactory’s work. On April 10, two weeks before the inauguration, he wrote to Knox: “The cloth & Buttons . . . really do credit to the Manufactures of this Country.”

The suit Washington imagined was a double-breasted coat with ten buttons. All the trimmings were significant to the president-elect. He added to Knox: “As it requires Six more of the large (engraved) buttons to trim the Coat in the manner I wish it to be, I would thank you, my good Sir, for procuring that number and retaining them in your hands until my arrival in New York.”

Washington settled, finally, on brown broadcloth that looked like velvet. Historian Brekke-Aloise describes the material — a wool and cotton blend — as a “very sober brown, almost Quaker, Puritanesque dark brown.” The color itself was a political statement. Black and gray and brown were markers of homespun, independent republicanism; powder blue and buff — a light pink to us today — were more fashionable, and signaled support for an America that might become a refined, commercial republic.

The brown Connecticut-made fabric was rushed by breathless horses and riders to the president-elect’s New York City tailors, where the final stitches went in at the eleventh hour. “You can almost picture them, like, sewing on the buttons the day of,” says Brekke-Aloise. “That’s how frenetic the search for American-manufactured cloth was.”

Washington’s suit | Courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

 Six-foot-two and clothed in brown American broadcloth, Washington looked unbelievably great at his swearing in at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan.

“The great hilarity, and tragic irony, is that . . . the press wrote op-eds in the following days criticizing him, saying that every thread he wears is repugnant to his words of patriotism because he wore a suit of foreign-manufactured cloth! They thought it wasn’t possible — that it was so finely made that it couldn’t possibly be American,” says Brekke-Aloise. “So he has to send his aides with proof that it had been made . . . from the Hartford Manufactory.”

On the first day of the first American presidency, Washington’s clothes were part of the dream for a new world order. There was a widespread belief — shared by men across the country, not just by a president — that clothes should be one of the vectors of the revolution. The clothes of all citizens could be American-made, sober, simple. Fashion would erase class difference and hide political division.

Such hopes for a wholly new social fabric were ever elusive. Washington did not, in what would have been a truly revolutionary gesture, put on his American suit himself. Like the kings of Europe, he was dressed by others; unlike those monarchs, he was dressed by slaves.

Throughout his presidency, he struggled with what he personally wanted out of fashion, and with what he thought the president should project. He did not believe that the chief executive should be fashionable, yet as an individual he longed to be. The contradiction was present on that first day. “He wore that suit to the political portion, the swearing in ceremony,” says Brekke-Aloise. “But for evening he wore a buff silk suit from London.”

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Published on February 16, 2017.

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About The Presidents

American presidents hold the most powerful office on earth and occupy a unique place at the center of national and world events. At once chief executive, head of state, commander-in-chief, and leader of a political party, the President of the United States is also a prominent cultural figure, and a bellwether of the society he governs.

In this award-winning collection, explore documentaries, biographies, interviews, articles, image galleries and more for an in-depth look at the history of the American presidency.