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.
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.