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Notes From A Museum: Thomas Jefferson’s Fashion Sense

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Charles James Fox, a painting by Karl Anton Hickel, depicts a man wearing the revolutionary colors of George Washington's army. Chloe Chapin, a scholar and former costume designer, presented about presidential fashion at Monticello last week.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On Presidents’ Day, we are shown portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but do we notice what they’re wearing? Though the shirts may have a few frills, we register the general impression and not the details; we see standard Founding Father garb, suitable for riding or for signing the Declaration of Independence.

On Feb. 15, Monticello, the home and burial site of Thomas Jefferson, presented a lecture on Jefferson’s fashion sense and its revolutionary implications, giving us plenty of details of design and color.

The talk and slide presentation, “Thomas Jefferson: Politics are Fashionable; Fashion is Political,” was given by Chloe Chapin, a Ph.d. candidate from Harvard in the American Studies program and a current Fellow at Monticello’s Jefferson Library. Previously, Chapin worked as a professional costume designer.

From pre-Revolutionary times to the days of the early American Republic, men’s fashions went “from peacock to penguin,” Chapin said. Bright colors were followed by dark suits and white shirts, a trend that has continued to this day, through all of the official portraits of the forty-six Presidents.

“Fashion is a language, but there’s no dictionary," Chapin said.

We have to read into the evidence, whether it’s a painting or a collage of individual portraits. Chapin has assembled databases of paintings and fashion plates to study trends.

During the American Revolution there was the birth of the black suit and the ideal of plainness. This style of dress was from the beginning attached to political ideas. The tailored men’s garments of the revolutionaries contrasted with the dress requirements of King George III’s court. Men’s court clothes had to be luxurious and heavily embroidered. The embroidery was done with the finest silk and with gold and silver thread. In the spirit of ‘all men are created equal,’ court attire was rejected in the United States.

On the figures within the 1819 John Trumbell painting, “Declaration of Independence,”  we can see the emergence of a uniform of power, a style that advocates democracy among the group of voting, propertied men.

Chapin said that we can “read the clothing that these men wore when they undertook such a critical task in American history and which can tell us additional information about national aesthetics, American values, and the stirrings of new ideas about democracy and modern masculinity.” In the painting, John Hancock is being presented with a draft of the Declaration of Independence; the date is June 28, 1776.

The ideas of French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau linked fashion with politics. Rousseau, who influenced the Declaration of Independence, insisted that a man’s dress reflect philosophy. In his “Confessions,” published in 1782, he describes purging his wardrobe of clothing that he considered decadent. As a reader and follower of Rousseau, Jefferson would have been aware of Rousseau’s choices, and he would also have seen the widely circulated portraits of Rousseau wearing a simple gray suit.

The uniform of George Washington’s army also had a strong effect on Jefferson’s appearance. In many of the later portraits of Jefferson, he is shown wearing the blue and buff colors of Washington’s men. The buff was a light yellow with a hint of brown. In England, Whig politician Charles James Fox would wear those same colors to show his support of the American experiment.

Thomas Jefferson eventually went to great lengths to support American cloth manufacture: a tariff; a trade in Merino sheep, which at first had to be smuggled illegally into the country; and the harboring of a dangerous ram on the White House grounds. Producing wool of equal quality to England’s meant that the United States could ensure its own civility. The ideal of plainness did not mean that the cloth would be inferior. The plainness of the early Republic stood for stability and being a citizen, and self-sufficiency of the United States was an important part of that vision.

Alexandria Searls is the executive director of the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Charlottesville.

Contact Jillian Lynch at 540-574-6274 or Follow Jillian on Twitter @lynchjillian_

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