First Fashionista

2009 February 3
by Leah Yale Potter

Yesterday’s Washington Post reports that revisionists are working on an extreme makeover of Martha Washington.  According to one recent biography, our great foremother was more fox than frump: she deftly managed five tobacco plantations while between husbands, was a fierce pointillist, and appreciated George’s, ahem, off-the-field maneuvers. And just look at those shoes.

When she married Colonel George Washington on January 6, 1759, Martha Dandridge Custis is said to have worn a "petticoat of white silk interwoven with silver," a gown of "deep yellow brocade with rich lace in the neck and sleeves," and these lavishly embellished shoes of "purple satin with silver trimmings."

Martha's "Manolos." Martha is said to have worn these high-heel silk and sequin slippers when she married Washington in 1759.

Since most portraits of Martha were painted postmortem (think showercap/dishtowel ensemble), forensic anthropologists have used a 1796 painting to create an image of what she may have looked like in her 20s.  A contemporary artist then used the image to paint a new “portrait” of Martha.  I’m not sure it counts for the upcoming PUSH forum, but does raise questions about visual historical interpretations…

Last 5 posts by Leah Yale Potter

2009 February 4
Ellen Noonan permalink

Thanks for this, Leah. It is an interesting exercise in recovering what the past looked like and dislodging the accidents of the extant visual record that have such disproportionate influence on how we envision historical people and places. That being said, though, I’ve been grinding my teeth lately over the media coverage of Michelle Obama, which is pretty much exclusively focused on how good she looks in clothes. Granted, the campaign teed this up by highlighting the aspects of her life history and personality that make her seem most “ordinary,” but the degree to which the media is willing to ride that train, and only that train, in their coverage of her is a reminder (as if one were needed) of mainstream society’s deep unease with feminism.

2009 February 4
Leah Potter permalink

What do you think about Elizabeth Peyton’s portrait of Michelle watching the DNC with Sasha’s head on her lap? Peyton paints Michelle in the passive position of listening to her husband’s speech, and having her child lean into her lap, but then gives a her pretty strong expression that seems to say…..????

2009 February 5
Aaron Knoll permalink

I think this whole issue of the image of Martha is an important reminder that these figures from the past were indeed real people. Martha’s been almost dehumanized to the same stereotype that her husband is. We don’t see them as real people- or at least they’re not taught as if they’re real people. Their mythic stature and iconic status obscures the humanity in much of history.

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