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A Story in Silk: Meeting Martha Washington Through a Surviving Gown

By Cynthia Chin, Georgetown University
December 1, 2017

“I…cannot help reminding you that it is necessary to be carefull of all your cloths – and have them kept together and often look over them -”

– Martha Washington to her granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, January 14, 17961

It’s a rare thing when you meet an extant 18th-century gown and know who wore it. Rarer still, when the wearer was Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. I recently had the honor of examining one of Martha Washington’s three known, intact, surviving gowns,2 which was generously loaned to George Washington’s Mount Vernon by the New Hampshire Historical Society (NHHS) for viewing and study.3

It was May, a few days before the month of Martha’s birth. The occasion felt celebratory, and expectant, as if part of her would be there, some sort of proxy, some entrance into her inner, private self. Dated 1755-60, with a probable earlier textile, the dress is a round gown4 in a distinctively patterned silk tobine;5 believed to be intended for men’s suiting. As the front of the faded dress was opened and turned, the scalloped silk trim curiously stuffed with wool batting6 carefully lifted, riotous color was revealed beneath: deep, saturated purple crowned with an almost-neon magenta undertone. Bold, flaring yellow punctuated the unconventional tripartite, semi-naturalistic floral repeat, comprised of complicated warp and weft floats7. Time flung backwards. Centuries collapsed. You could almost feel her, Martha, whispering things about herself that no historian has yet understood, no other document has recorded. This is the power of objects: they connect us to what it is to be human, to all the emotions and experiences it entails.

Beyond anthropological, curatorial, or interdisciplinary methodological approaches (or even the necessary stories of data and document analysis), there is a romance to the material world seldom openly acknowledged in our field, a glorious piquing and pairing of imagination and intelligence. The neckline that once held her scent, the robings that pressed over her chest, rising and falling beneath neat stays are just as important to think about as selvedge8 marks, x-ray analysis, evidence of remaking, and careful textile dating. She was perhaps kissed in this dress, or tears might have wetted its now-missing stomacher9. So much occurred in her life as a young woman: a maddening cycle of loss and hope and loss and hope, dizzying to our modern minds. And let us consider an older Lady Washington. What compelled her to save this gown? Who held onto it after her and passed it down? So many stories and voices are embedded in this one dress, waiting to speak.

The Mount Vernon collections conservation space was crowded with myriad opinions and eager bodies that day, but I imagined myself alone, bending over the gown spread out on the table, whispering to coax out its secrets. When exactly were you worn? What was she like? Did her arms, clothed in you, hold an ailing child? Who stitched you together, creating those magnificently perfect seams down your back, curves that speak of a skilled hand and a refined eye? Did your uneven hem walk the floor in times of misery, did your pleats ever sway in joy?

These lines of inquiry are what propel our passion for analysis, our mining for sources, our visual comparisons, informing our eye and stimulating our hypotheses. Unless we maintain this visceral connection to the wearer and her biography, and even to the making and wearing of the artifact itself, documents will mean less, data will lose its story.

My past work with George Washington’s Mount Vernon has led me to explore a style that is emerging as uniquely Martha’s. And as my doctoral research at Georgetown progresses, I look forward to bringing these discoveries to the fore by engaging this gown and other Martha Washington objects through several lenses and approaches, in order to do what material culture historians endeavor through their painstaking study of objects: know a little more about human truth.

 

Formerly the speechwriter to the Board of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and special assistant to the president at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Cynthia Chin is a doctoral student at Georgetown University, studying the intersections of 18th-century material culture, art history, political philosophy, and experimental archaeology. You can find her on Twitter @cynthiawriter and cynthiachin.com.

All photos were taken with permission from the New Hampshire Historical Society.


1. Martha Washington to Eleanor Parke Custis, Jan. 14, 1796, in Joseph E. Fields, ed. Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington, (1994), 290.

2. The three known surviving, intact Martha Washington gowns are in the collections of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the New Hampshire Historical Society, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

3. The group convened courtesy of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Renée Walker-Tuttle, and Susan Schoelwer and Amanda Isaac of George Washington’s Mount Vernon who graciously hosted and facilitated the dress study session.

4. A one-piece gown that grew in popularity from the mid- to late-18th century. Unlike the more common two-piece gown and petticoat, the round gown was constructed of an attached skirt that allowed the wearer to step into the garment and tie its front around her waist.

5. A silk with an additional flushing warp

6. A thin layer of wool used beneath layers of fabric. Here, batting was used to create three-dimensional cording as a decorative embellishment.

7. A warp float is a lengthwise thread that floats above two or more perpendicular, cross-wise threads. A weft float is a cross-wise thread that floats above two or more length-wise warp threads.

8. The finished edge created on textiles during the weaving process that prevents it from unraveling.

9. A triangular section of fashion fabric that comprises the front of a woman’s bodice in 18th-century open-front gowns.