Photo Credit: Getty ; New York Historical Society
When we think of First Lady style, the shift dresses of Jacqueline Kennedy and the ballgowns of Michelle Obama flutter about our minds. However, there are a plethora of First Ladies who not only had great style, but also influenced American fashion. The very first to be style influencers were the wives of some of the first presidents of the United States, who witnessed a change from colonial ruling to a new, burgeoning country.
How we know who wore what and when is derived from portraits, written descriptions and surviving artifacts. By knowing what these women wore, we get a better understanding of their personality, social standing and wealth.
During the eighteenth century, women wore long skirts and covered their elbows with bustier-corset tops. The most popular style seen in early America was the Robe à l’Anglaise, a gown with back pleats stitched from the shoulder that then released into a full skirt. This style was not only popular for its flattering style, but also for its meaning. An opposite style, Robe à la Française, which was favored by upper-class French.
Photo Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Although they were important women of their time, the style of Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams have not been noteworthy. When looking at portraits of these women, it can be concluded that they stuck to dress conventions of the time. However, there were two First Ladies that left substantial evidence that they were serious fashion influencers, Martha Washington and Dolly Madison.
Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson
Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery; Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Martha entered the presidency when she was in her 50’s, and on her second marriage. Through the death of her first husband, she had both the money from his estate and the purchasing responsibilities. By purchasing her own clothing and accessories and keeping the receipts, we have a full understanding into what she wore. Well into her marriage with George and the presidency, Martha enjoyed dazzling garnets and understated garments. She based her wardrobe on the country’s strong beliefs of avoiding over-indulgent fashions, which was worn by the English court. By her choosing simpler clothing than she could afford, she helped shape the wardrobe and mentality towards clothing for many American women.
Photo Credit: New York Historical Society
For all of the frugality that Martha Washington brought, Dolly Madison brought the glam. Dolly was notorious for her fun parties and outgoing personality. In order to match the energy of her social life, Dolly wore fine, colorful gowns and her signature, a turban.
Dolly's Red Velvet Gown
Photo Credit: Our State.com
Dolly was often portrayed in an all-white cap-sleeved gown, but her personal wardrobe was much more. Some of Dolly’s wardrobe consisted of a pink robe trimmed in ermine to a gown in light blue velvet. It is rumored that she even wore a red velvet gown made from the curtains from her heroic pull from the White House.
Just like today, First Lady fashion can be both entertaining and influential.