Martha Washington is often depicted as a grandmotherly figure in a mob cap. Yet her contemporaries knew her as a woman of strength, determination, intellectual curiosity, and high fashion.

Portrait of Martha Dandridge Custis, John Wollaston, oil on canvas, 1757. Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA. [U1918.1.1]In an age before photography, some of the best clues to understanding Martha Washington's personal appearance come from portrait miniatures and paintings done during her lifetime. Because many of them were rendered later in her life, we are prompted to think of Martha as a simply dressed matron with hair tucked neatly into her mop cap.

A different Martha Washington emerges, however, through earlier renderings and surviving personal articles.

"Fine" Fashion from London

In 1757, at the death of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, Martha assumed the administration of the Custis estate, as well as her late husband's extensive business operations. She was called upon to deal directly with the London mercantile community. It was an unusual role for an 18th-century woman to play, yet Martha was astute in her dealing.

In addition to negotiating tobacco sales, she requested and received fashionable English laces, silks, jewelry, footwear, bonnets, and dozens of kid gloves and silk stockings. Martha was quite direct about the kind and quality of goods she desired, specifying repeatedly that they be of the "best" and "fine" variety.

A Stylish Young Bride

Visitors to Mount Vernon can see reproductions of Martha Washington's gold silk damask wedding dress and sequin-covered shoes in the museum (MVLA)

Visitors to Mount Vernon can see reproductions of Martha Washington's gold silk damask wedding dress and sequin-covered shoes in the museum (MVLA)

In the 18th-century tradition was to wear one's best dress for their wedding. Martha Custis actually chose a stunning combination of silks that offered an exhibition of her finery as well as her social and economic standing for her wedding to George Washington.

Mrs. Washington's descendants recorded that she wore a gown of yellow silk damask with a petticoat of cream silk highlighted with interwoven silver threads. Remarkably, samples of the silk have survived through these descendants, as have sections of the lace that trimmed her gown. The yellow damask woven silk was certainly among the finest of goods delivered to the colonies and the lace was perhaps the 'best superfine lace' or 'Dresden' lace.

Lavish Lace

Wedding Slippers

The combination of expensive, imported yellow and purple silks with silver and gold decorations would have produced a regal appearance that conveyed her elevated social and economic standing. [W-2667/A-B]

The combination of expensive, imported yellow and purple silks with silver and gold decorations would have produced a regal appearance that conveyed her elevated social and economic standing. [W-2667/A-B]

Although somewhat faded today, Martha Washington's wedding slippers were originally a purple satin with silver ornamentation.

The combination of expensive, imported yellow and purple silks with silver and gold decorations would have produced a regal appearance that conveyed her elevated social and economic standing.

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Jewelry

Garnet necklace [W-2212] Gift of Barnaby Conrad, 1989

Garnet necklace [W-2212] Gift of Barnaby Conrad, 1989

Martha Washington's jewelry certainly kept pace with her clothing.

In the 1750s and 1760s, she frequently purchased jewelry featuring garnets, which were highly fashionable and popular at the time. In 1760, she received "a pair [of] 3 dropt Garnet Earrings," presumably to wear with one of the two garnet necklaces sent to her the previous year. An additional pair of earrings arrived in 1764, and examples of both the earrings and the necklace survive at Mount Vernon today.

Garnet Earrings [W-2003/A-B] Gift of Elizabeth T. Wise and Henry A. Wise II, MD, 2002

The large size of these silver and paste (cut and faceted glass) shoe buckles is typical of buckles worn by both men and women during the late eighteenth century. [M-4085/B] Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Michael Tyson of Houston, Texas, 2000

The large size of these silver and paste (cut and faceted glass) shoe buckles is typical of buckles worn by both men and women during the late eighteenth century. [M-4085/B] Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Michael Tyson of Houston, Texas, 2000

Paste Stones and Shoe Buckles

Although diamonds were becoming more available to American colonials by the latter half of the 18th century, paste stones or diamond substitutes remained exceedingly popular. They were usually set by jewelers with the same care given to precious stones. 

Martha Washington ordered paste shoe buckles for herself and her children, and in 1770 "A Complete Sett of Paste necklace, earrings, sprig, and hair combs together with Pins and Buttons for the Stomacher" and "A Pair of Paste Shoe Buckles to suit" them.

Avoiding the Appearance of Ostentation

Clearly, Martha Washington's attire was not wanting as she established herself as mistress of Mount Vernon. She secured precisely the goods she wished in what was likely a very conscious effort to establish herself in her new community and circle of acquaintances. Yet she avoided the appearance of ostentation. Of their agreement on attire, George Washington said:

... her wishes coincide with my own as to simplicity of dress and everything which can tend to support propriety of character without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation.

George Washington To Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, January 9th, 1790

The First Lady's Neoclassical Style

Undoubtedly Edward Savage's most famous work, The Washington Family was the only contemporary painting to depict the first president at Mount Vernon (MVLA)

Undoubtedly Edward Savage's most famous work, The Washington Family was the only contemporary painting to depict the first president at Mount Vernon (MVLA)

With the onset of the new classical styles, George Washington purchased "pearl pins and earring for Mrs. Washington," numerous examples of which survive at Mount Vernon.

Martha Washington likely acquired a necklace of fashionable amber that remains today in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Amber was important to the Greeks and Romans, so it is not surprising that it rose to great popularity in the classical revivals of the Federal period. And it is no coincidence that Martha Washington chose a necklace with reference to the golden era of a former republic.

As her husband entered the presidency, Mrs. Washington sought to define her role as a reflection of the ideological foundation of the new republic. Her title was debated, with suggestions including the French and English aristocratic addresses of 'Marquise' and 'Lady'. Because she sought to avoid the appearance of an American aristocracy or court culture, she chose to remain simply 'Mrs. Washington', thereby distinguishing herself from her European counterparts-- a distinction she further made apparent in her choice of attire. Abigail Adams described her first impression of Martha Washington to her sister as "modest and unassuming, dignified and feminine."

Her Enduring Legacy

Martha Washington's life was full, and the legacies she left behind great. She understood the meanings conveyed by the clothing and jewelry she wore and the objects with which she surrounded herself. She acquired finery from the East and West, yet avoided any appearance of ostentation. We might consider that one of Martha Washington's enduring legacies is the style and grace she offered as a First Lady role model. She would, no doubt, also wish to be remembered as one of her guests described: 

she reminded me of the Roman matrons of whom I had read so much, and I thought that she well deserved to be the companion and friend of the greatest man of the age.

Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, November 1780

Martha Inspired Jewelry

Martha Washington inspired replicas available only in The Shops at Mount Vernon.

A Day in the Life of Martha Washington

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