The dress is overall a dark brown color. The neckline has a soft, white piece of fabric next to the dark brown fabric. The dark brown fabric completely covers the bodice, or torso, with straps tying it together. The bodice ends in a "v", right at the waist, and has long sleeves. The dark brown fabric comes down on either side, creating a skirt that touches the floor. Under that brow material is a cream piece of silk that covers the front part of the skirt.
When looking at this dress, consider the following questions:
- This dress was made from silk and most likely imported from England. Where did silk come from in the 1790s? How would Martha Washington have gotten a dress like this?
- What does this dress tell us about Martha Washington?
- Why do you think this dress is still intact? Why would other dresses not be?
- The dress was most likely made and worn in the 1790s. What was happening in the 1790s, especially with the Washingtons? Why would it be important for Martha Washington to own such a fancy dress?
Classroom Materials downloads are ZIP files that include, when available: document images (JPEGs), document transcripts (PDF as well as Word and/or Excel files), and ready to use classroom resources (activities, discussion prompts, lesson plans, etc.). These materials are available for educational uses only. If you would like to reproduce them in any other medium, please contact Dawn Bonner, Manager of Visual Resources.
Just as her husband realized that his every action might set a precedent for future presidents, so was Martha aware that her behavior as first lady would have the same impact on future views of presidents. Mrs. Washington possibly wore this dress while her husband was President, thereby setting an example of elegance for the nation. It was made in England between 1790-1800 and is made of silk and linen.
One of her most important steps was to start a weekly reception held on Friday evenings for anyone who would like to attend. At these gatherings, members of Congress, visiting foreign politicians, and men and women from the local community were welcomed at the presidential mansion. After being presented to Mrs. Washington, they enjoyed refreshments, talked with each other, and mingled. Although most guests addressed Martha as “Lady Washington,” some referred to her as “our Lady Presidentess.” Opening up the president’s house to ordinary citizens was a sign that the new government would be close to the people and responsive to their needs.