SUITS: George Washington and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

When you study 18th-century textiles, it’s hard to find instances of cloth that were not only worn in America, but also made here. My summer research took me to Mount Vernon, which houses three coats worn by George Washington, two of which are believed to have been made of cloth produced on American soil. Recently, a blog post I wrote about my summer travel went live on Winterthur’s blog. Because of that, George’s coats instantly came to mind the other day when this news story started going around about congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe.

If like me, you’re studying woolen cloth in early America, one of the stories that comes up a lot is that of George Washington’s inauguration suit. Washington was inaugurated wearing a suit made of an all-american textile, produced in Hartford Connecticut, but it didn’t look that way to a lot of people. Henry Knox, who procured the brown woolen suiting for the president-elect, described it as equal in quality to the second-best textiles of British manufacture, but despite this it was much finer than most American-made textiles at that time.

As one of two brown woolen coats of George Washington’s in Mount Vernon’s collection, this may be the suit in which the president was inaugurated. (This researcher believes the other coat is more likely, but alas that one is not online!)

The public saw the suit and interpreted the fine brown wool as an import from Britain. In the brand-new republic, this didn’t read well at all. Washington and Knox had attempted to find a material that would do justice to the office of president, while also acknowledging American independence through to use of domestically-produced cloth. The public, unable to read the metaphorical “made it America” label, judged Washington because of their own misinterpretation.

If this story sounds familiar to you, then congratulations! You’ve been reading the news. Or maybe you just scrolled through your facebook/twitter/insta feed and saw this exchange between reporter Eddy Scarry and congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:


Criticizing people for their fashion choices is as American as apple pie (though honestly this trend is species-wide, not just nation-wide). Ocasio-Cortez is in DC to make laws, not set trends, and she should not have to justify her fashion choices to reporters. But if we’re going to sit around picking apart her outfit, lets at least put it in some goddamned perspective and realize that the individuals we describe as “founding fathers” had to put up with this bullshit too.

Fashion and politics are intimately entwined. When Ocasio-Cortez was photographed in a suit, Scarry didn’t see the millennial who was worried about paying her rent and so he called her out on her perceived hypocrisy. The same thing happened in 1789 when Washington got flack for wearing a suit made of what looked like British wool so soon after independence.  Image, and therefore fashion, is important for politicians, because it is important to us, their constituents. We desire to relate to our representatives, and clothing helps to make that happen. But Ocasio-Cortez also needs to be respected by her colleagues. Like Washington, she’s trying to follow two dress codes simultaneously.

Unlike Washington, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a young woman of color in a world dominated by rich, old, white men. Because of this she faces a whole range of struggles that Washington never encountered. Fundamentally, however, both were elected by the people of the United States to govern this country.

Though the story of George Washington’s inauguration outfit survives in many works on American fashion history, it does not define the man. Let us follow that example and judge Ocasio-Cortez on her merits, and not her suits.




“It’s pretty, but what is it for?”

This semester I’m doing in independent study with one of my fellow classmates, Katie, and Winterthur’s furniture curator Josh Lane. To me, this is an opportunity to think about one material in a more complex way that I’ve been able to before; a chance to look at a magnificent mid-eighteenth-century chair and ask not only “who made this and where were they trained?” but also “who sat in this chair? Was it comfortable? What did it allow them to do, or not do?” (You might recognize a theme there with another blog post of mine from a few years ago.)

As it turns out, while there is a ton of literature on individual furniture makers who worked in early America, there’s not a whole lot of scholarship on this type of object after it leaves the workshop. “Why not?” you ask. Well, in part because the study of old things is driven by the market for old things. Antique dealers can add zeros to auction estimates for pieces attributed to certain well-known craftspeople. The signs of use (scratches, dents, stains) which mark an object as the favorite seat of a long-dead stranger are a harder sell for most customers, even though they embody unique stories about our past.

Similarly, the functionality of many furniture forms has little meaning to most modern people. The drawers of a high chest in a museum collection are almost certainly empty. In a private home, those drawers hold twenty-first century belongings. Articles documenting their contents in the first decades of their use are, for some reason, shockingly rare.

For me, however, it is the questions of function, rather than form, which hold my interest. Luckily, at Wintherthur I’m not alone in this. At a recent meeting of my independent study, Katie, Josh, and I spent half an hour debating the functionality of an early eighteenth-century dressing table. This form consists of a small table, with a few drawers in the front. It is designed to hold a looking glass on top, so that an individual might sit at it while completing their toilette.

We tried out one like this – yes, there is room for one knee under there, but neither Katie nor I thought we could reliably get our legs under this table while wearing a dress and not run the risk of breaking off one of the turned acorn drops.  Dressing Table, 1730-1750. Winterthur Museum. 1955.0096.002. 

This is all well and good except that it’s almost impossible to actually sit at most dressing tables of this era. The drawers beneath the table top take up the room where your knees might have gone. We confirmed this by positioning a modern stool in front of one such dressing table and taking turns sitting down in front of it, experimenting with where our legs could and could not go. So how does one use one’s expensive dressing table? Seated sideways? Perched on a stool? Or is it less a table and more of vessel for cosmetics and ribbons, not meant to be sat at at all? Surely not every owner of a dressing table was posing for Francois Boucher!

Francois Boucher,  La Marchande de modes, 1746.  

This post is a call-out, or a suggestion, or maybe a call-to-arms: lets think more about what goes into the drawers, and less about how those drawers we assembled. Let the comfort of a chair be part of the conversation, and the utility of a table be part of its interpretation. Sure, these things are pretty, but lets also talk about what they are for!