Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 22:01
George and Martha Washington
George Washington was quite the dapper fellow, a solid foundation for all presidential fashion to follow. Ruffled collars and ascots proudly framed the Virginia native’s staunch visage. Washington, robust in his masculinity, was unwilling to mask his iconic revolutionary flow with the conventional powdered wig. Our first president was relatively conservative in his dress, especially in the context of the flamboyant trends of the social elite at the time. This did not stop him from spending considerable sums to acquire the latest styles from London, frequently sporting a golden embroidery synonymous with wealth. The Revolutionary War regrettably severed Washington’s ties to British fashion, but the subtle taste dandyism continued to grace Washington’s apparel well into the golden years of his life. He was reportedly the most athletic of our founding fathers, a master of dance and equestrianship as well as war. At 6’2”, George rarely fit well into his impressive symphony of attire. Contrary to popular belief, his teeth were not made of wood, but rather gold, ivory, and lead—his refined chomps were capable of putting most rappers to shame. For this presidential dime, fashion and moral duty were inseparably connected.
Martha Washington, wrongfully characterized as a frump, was in fact quite attractive according to many historians. Although there’s no way to properly ascertain the amount of hollers our founding mother solicited from the passing horse and buggy, Martha Washington partook in a tradition of high fashion similar to that of her husband. Martha had a taste for English jewelry and silk textiles. She fancied fine lace and delicate material, evidenced in her wide collection of bonnets and flowing gowns. Perhaps Martha Washington was not quite an icon of feminine mystique, but she certainly filled her shoes nicely. – J.W.
When it comes to the iconic, no American president can top our 16th and greatest, Abraham Lincoln. Of course, Lincoln’s reputation largely rests on his not-so-easy feat of guiding the country through a bloody civil war while successfully eradicating slavery. But in the less significant realm of fashion, Lincoln was certainly no slouch. Indeed, he is one of the handful of historical figures who can be universally recognized even in silhouette: the tall and lanky frame and protruding top hat are uniquely his. Together with his signature black bow ties, long black coat and vests, he crafted an iconic ensemble that have been re-appropriated by filmmakers, iconographers, and costume makers for 150 years. Lincoln also sported one of the most impressive presidential beards. Indeed, it’s so much a part of the Lincoln look that it’s disconcerting to look at pictures of a younger Lincoln and see him clean-shaven. In fact, Lincoln didn’t have a beard until late 1860, when 11 year-old Grace Bedell wrote him a letter suggesting that he grow one, claiming “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
Mary Todd Lincoln, for her part, favored white lace, elaborate head decorations, and flowery dresses. Mrs. Lincoln was very conscious of appearances, as she reportedly felt insecure about her place in Washington society and hosted elaborate balls and banquets to prove the Lincolns’ elegance and style. –S.K.
Teddy Roosevelt surely runs Lincoln a close second when it comes to iconically dressed presidents. Roosevelt first gained his national reputation as a Rough Rider, leading cavalry charges in Cuba in full cowboy mode. The tan uniform with prominent buttons, the collar embroidered with “U.S.V.” (for United States Volunteer), the accompanying horn, and the fedora were all prominent hallmarks of this first look. When he became president, of course, Roosevelt adopted more formal attire, with smartly tailored grey and black suits complete with matching vest and a pocket watch. But for both main looks of his life—Colonel and President—some things remained consistent. The thick mustache and eyeglasses were both constants, though they certainly adapted over time. The mustache became greyer over the decades, naturally, while as President, Roosevelt replaced the traditional eyeglass look for more elegant pince nez glasses, which lacked earpieces and which were decidedly in style during the late 19th century. Whatever his fashion, though, Roosevelt’s burly frame and gruff exterior projected the image of a man you didn’t want to mess with, lest you incur the wrath of a big stick.
Roosevelt’s second wife, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, was First Lady during his presidency, but she never left much of an impression in popular memory. Perhaps Teddy’s overwhelming personality was enough for both of them—or perhaps America was still waiting for the truly significant Roosevelt woman, Teddy’s niece Eleanor. – S.K.