Fashionable Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison is renowned as a fashion icon of the Early Republic. She is often remembered for her glamorous appearance as First Lady hosting parties in the fashionably decorated Drawing Room of the President’s House.
But how do we know what Mrs. Madison wore? The answer is threefold: portraits, written descriptions, and surviving gowns which are believed to be hers.
As a grand dame of Washington society, not to mention the wife of a president, Dolley was the subject of many portraits and sketches. If you have visited Montpelier, you’re familiar with two hanging in the Drawing Room: an 1804 portrait by Gilbert Stuart, and Joseph Wood’s 1817 likeness. In both of these portraits, Dolley wears a white gown with a low neckline and empire waist, with accessories appropriate to a leader of fashion: shawl, gold necklace, lace collar, and of course her signature turban. The turban appears frequently in later-life images of Dolley, including daguerreotypes made by Mathew Brady in 1848, the year before her death.
In order to have a broader understanding of Dolley’s fashion decisions, we turn to documentary sources. People who encountered Dolley during her time as wife of the Secretary of State or First Lady often described her appearance in letters to friends and family, in the same way we now share photographs of celebrities, out of curiosity, and for news on the latest fashions. Although most of these record special occasions, for which outfits would have been planned as they were for portraits, they offer a wider variety of instances and thereby increase our knowledge of Dolley’s fashion choices.
For instance, although they do not appear in either of the turbaned images of Dolley mentioned above, a number of descriptions mention feathers attached to her turbans. One visitor to the White House on New Year’s Day, 1814, wrote to a friend that, because she was already a tall woman, the “white Ostrich feather directly in front of her bonnet, which was quite elevated, gave her a commanding appearance.”1 It is easy to imagine being able to track Dolley through a crowded levee in the White House, watching the plumes on her turban bob along as she made her way greeting those in attendance.
The written records also give us a sense of the colors Dolley chose for her gowns. While our portraits depict Dolley in white, a New Year’s day visitor noted she wore “a robe of pink satin, trimmed elaborately with ermine.” In December of the following year, Dolley chose “a sky-blue striped velvet – a frock – fine, elegant lace around the neck and lace handkerchief inside and a large ruff”.2 Other sources tell us of gowns in yellow, purple, and Dolley’s favorite color, red.
Later in life, Dolley chose to wear more somber colors. After James’ death, she wore mourning almost exclusively, in memory of her much beloved husband. Her nephew, Richard D. Cutts, wrote to a friend “For at least a quarter of a century before her death, her dress was usually of black velvet or black satin, with a great deal of white tulle around her neck, of which material her turban was made. She always wore a scarf over her shoulders.”3 Almost all accounts of her life in Washington as a widow describe her in black, although on New Year’s Day 1844, it was reported that she wore “a dove colored satin gown.”4
A handful of extant dresses give us a sense of the actual movement and drape of Dolley’s gowns, not to mention her height and size. One of these, in the collection of the Greensboro Historical Museum in North Carolina, conveys some sense of her early Washington wardrobe. Although faded with time, the velvet is today a warm red-orange, and was probably a vibrant crimson when she wore it. The fabric drapes beautifully, evoking movement and grace.
Perhaps the surviving garment which best captures Dolley’s fashion, however, is the silk gown now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution and part of their online First Ladies’ Fashions exhibit. The cream-colored silk is hand-embroidered, and the style is the height of fashion, reminiscent of the courts of England and France. It is one of the most elegant and exquisite gowns in the popular exhibit.
Dolley Madison was a fashion leader during her years as a politician’s wife in Washington, and even during her widowhood retained a unique and definite style of dress. Her character shone through every outfit she wore, and whether in crimson or black; as her obituary in a Washington newspaper said, she was “beloved by all who personally knew her, and universally respected.”5
1. John Wilson to Aaron Hobart, January 1, 1814, The Gilder Lehrman Collection, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York, New York
2. Sarah Gales Seaton, diary entry for January 2, 1814, quoted in Allen C. Clark, Life and Letters of Dolly Madison (Washington, DC: W. F. Roberts Co., 1914), 157; Mary Boardman Crowninshield to Mary Hodges Boardman, December 7, 1815, Esther Singleton, The Story of the White House (New York: McClure Company, 1907), 83.
3. Richard D. Cutts to James Hodges, April 8, 1876, James Hodges, “The Republican Court”, MS 2126, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.
4. ”Washington Correspondence,” The Ohio Statesman (Columbus, OH), January 9, 1844.
5. Obituary for Dolley Payne Todd Madison, Daily National Intelligencer, July 14, 1849.