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