By Emmet Powell (’23)
For upper class white men in 18th century America, fashion was a luxury they were able to partake in. To do so, many maintained close relationships with their merchants, designers, and tailors. On July 20, 1967 George Washington wrote a letter to Charles Lawrence, who aided Washington with his material needs, to place an order for costume clothes. The letter was most likely written just to Lawrence, but coworkers could have also examined it. The informal diction and direct tone casts the perception that the two had done business with each other for some time. Washington’s letter provides a personal account of how he felt about his fashion, and reveals his vanity. Specifically, the letter to Lawrence reflects a man who was inherently racist and obsessed with the outward presentation of himself, even to the point of impeding his duties as chief executive of the country.
George Washington instructs Charles Lawrence to make him a unique pair of breeches and a coat. The breeches are called “black silk knit ones” (1). The choice of style in the letter is consistent with the decade as “silk knit, also called stocking, was a very fashionable material for breeches in the 1760s” (2). In addition, the color black, an extremely difficult and therefore costly color to produce, alludes to Washington’s expensive taste (3). He also requests a Startout great coat, which was a large, loose overcoat made up of four pieces of material sewn together with a seam under the arms (1). Washington demands the coat be “fashionably made of good cloth” (1). The quote speaks to Washington’s obsession with his appearance: “A market trait of Washington’s character was his particularity about his clothes; there can be little question that he was early in life a good deal of a dandy” (4). Washington was calculated and deliberate in his choice of fashion. His efforts to be modern and polished with his clothing are a pattern apparent throughout his career.
Washington repeats his measurements of “six feet high and proportionably made,” obviously more concerned with a flattering fit than redundancy in the composition of his letter (1). Additionally, to ensure his clothes fit properly, Washington frequently visited tailors to have his clothes amended to his exact liking. William Carlin, one of Washington’s tailors, helped the people of Alexandria, Virginia, from 1763 to 1782. With “Washington physically within the walls of the tailor shop, standing as his own model, Carlin could lengthen breeches, widen the breadth of coats, and restore an appropriate shape to the tall and proportionately made man” (3). Carlin’s accounts offer insights in the ways Washington chose to clothe his body. “Men like Washington relied on their local tailor to connect them to the goods and fashions of the Atlantic world, while also providing clothing to mitigate Virginia’s climate and celebrate life’s milestones” (3). In regard to his measurements for his new Sartout coat, Washington tells Lawrence that he cannot “go much amiss” (5). The phrasing is stern and portrays a man who takes his clothing seriously and treats his appearance with the utmost importance. If and when he received clothes that did not fit him, Washington “took to Carlin’s shop coats that needed mending and breeches that required alteration to his large frame” or “they were promptly discarded” (3, 4). His attention to detail and refusal to accept clothing that did not meet his high standard reveals a meticulous and critical attitude towards fashion and his presentation of self. Though he displayed some level of respect in addressing Lawrence as “sir” to begin and end the letter, the stern verbiage throughout the body of the source suggests Washington’s lack of patience for Lawrence.
Washington continues his specific requests and adds details to his breeches that he deems necessary: “let the Breeches have cool linings fit for Summer wear and a side pocket” (1). The description portrays breeches with the usual horizontal pockets with openings on the front but also vertical openings in the seams: “the pocket is really a narrow pouch fourteen inches long, two inches wide at the top, and three inches wide at the bottom” (2). The specificity of the request reveals a man who was committed to both appearance and comfort. The style of clothing, specific to summer, implies a wardrobe that could alter with the weather. The ability to customize clothes to specific seasons speaks to someone who held upper-class stature.
Washington utilized dress as a vehicle to reflect symbolic ideals of the newly found country. At his first inauguration in 1789, he wore a brown suit made of broadcloth made with shrunk wool giving the appearance of velvet (Figure 1). As the first president, Washington shrewdly understood that every decision he made, down to the very clothes he wore, would be scrutinized. At the time, European cloth was deemed far superior than American clothing which was often outdated and crude. Yet, Washington deliberately chose to wear American-made clothing, rather than dress made in England. Jeremiah Wadsworth, the Former Commissary General of the Continental Army, made Washington’s attire for his inauguration in Connecticut. Washington also elected to wear eagle-adorned buttons on his coat conveying to the public the symbol of the new nation. Washington’s suit avoids the luxurious fabrics and excessive finery that represented royalty giving the appearance that he was a leader for the people. The outfit served to symbolically attempt to unite the country through its colonial origins.
However, the president’s infatuation with his visual presentation led him to at times go against his presidential expectations. An oil portrait by Gilbert Stuart displays Washington, just a couple years after his first inauguration, wearing a black velvet coat that touches his knees. Also black are his breeches, waistcoat, stockings, and shoes with their large silver buckles. White ruffled linen at his neck and lace ruffles at his wrists contrast from the dark colors. The attire displaces his rejection of European manufacturing: “Washington took pride in domestic manufactures and anxious to promote them, but he also greatly appreciated the quality of certain imported goods” (2). The change in fashion represents Washington’s internal struggle between what a president should project and what he personally wanted to wear. This contradiction was present on his first day as president: “Washington wore an American suit to the political portion, the swearing in ceremony. But for evening he wore a buff silk suit from London.” As an individual he longed to be fashionable even if it meant abandoning American goods and tailors. As mentioned in the letter to Lawrence, Washington intended to pay for his new clothes through Messrs. Cary & Co. He relied on Robert Cary Company, a large London-based merchant house, for maintaining balance within his finances (5). Washington’s last request was to have a “Suit of Cloth Cloaths which you are desired to make for Master Custis” (1). The article of clothing was likely for John Cutis, the biological son of Martha Washington and her deceased husband Daniel Park, and the adopted son of George Washington.
It is important to recognize that Washington actively participated in the atrocities of slavery that plagued his time. The title of Master, used by Washington in his letter, was the title by which enslaved persons referred to their enslavers. Washington’s reference to Master implicitly alludes to the enslaved people working at his property on Mount Vernon. Washington’s discriminatory disposition can be contextualized through clothing. Washington purchased nice clothes for a select few of those he enslaved: “Because enslaved house servants were highly visible, Washington provided them more and better-quality clothing than field workers” (8). However, the majority of those enslaved on Mt. Vernon were given poor quality of clothing: “Washington also purchased large quantities of inexpensive fabric like Osnaburg, a rough unbleached linen textile that was sometimes called ‘slave cloth’ or ‘negro cloth.’ Mount Vernon’s enslaved people usually had no choice but to wear clothing identifying their enslavement (8). Washington’s refusal to adequately dress those he enslaved is consistent with his perpetual disrespect towards them; it is a noteworthy yet shameful fact that he never freed those he enslaved during his lifetime (8).
George Washington’s letter to Charles Lawrence serves as a powerful tool that considers fashion in relation to his wealth, power, and character. The source shows how George Washington longed to be fashionable. He allocated a substantial amount of money and time to ensure his dress was both flattering and well kept. There were times where his passion for clothes helped progress the United States of America through his attention to textile symbols that reflected the young country’s independence, not only politically, but economically through production of material goods. His recognition of the importance of dress for the commander-in-chief set a precedent for future presidents to come. However, his clothes consumed him and exposed flaws within his character. His impatient demeanor marked a person who demanded perfection of those who worked on his clothes. His decisions to occasionally prioritize personal tastes over duties as president were hypocritical, and his deliberate choice to dress the people he enslaved in low-quality clothing while he purchased the finest fabrics, present Washington as a man corrupted by racism. Washington’s prioritization of personal appearance reflects a conflict between his appreciation for American-made goods and his love of dressing in European fashions, while maintaining an unsurprising disdain for individuals considered not American (and not even human). revealing the faults of a historical icon. Fashion serves as a lens through which one can begin to understand an iconic American leader who still had major faults of his own.
Emmet Powell is an American Studies and Economics major. His article was originally written for Professor Sophie White’s American Studies course ‘Fashioning American Identities.’
- Washington, Fitzpatrick, John Clement, and Matteson, David Maydole. Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. Washington: Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1931. https://www.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html. https://www.loc.gov/item/mgw3g.006/.
- Murray, Anne. “George Washington’s Apparel,” The Magazine Antiques, (1980), Vol 18, 120-125.
- Gruber, Katherine Egner. “‘By Measures Taken of Men’: Clothing the Classes in William Carlin’s Alexandria, 1763—1782.” Early American Studies, vol. 13, no. 4, 2015, pp. 931–953. www.jstor.org/stable/44630810.
- “The True George Washington: Tastes and Amusements.” February 28, 2017. https://www.infoplease.com/primary-sources/history-biography/the-true-george-washington/true-george-washington-tastes-and-amusements
- “George Washington Letter to Robert Cary and Co.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/robert-cary-and-company/.
- “George Washington’s First Inaugural Suit.” Fabric from the Hartford Woolen Manufactory. 1789.
- Stuart, Gilbert. Lansdowne Portrait. 1796. Oil on canvas, 95 x 59 13/16 inches. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/photos/treasures-of-the-white-house-george-washington.
- “Clothing.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/clothing/.