By: Laura Spears
In 1801, when Dolley Madison first came to Washington, construction of the city had only begun nine years previously, and Washington was still a swampy wilderness. The buildings were few and perfunctory. At this time, The Federalist and Republican parties were so polarized, that the various boarding houses they returned to each evening were divided along party lines. Political disputes were often settled in a physically violent nature, whether in the chambers of Congress or outside the city at the Bladensburg dueling grounds.
As the wife of the Secretary of State, and then later the First Lady, Dolley helped soothe political tensions. By entertaining both Federalist and Republicans at parties and dinners hosted in her home, Dolley created a bipartisan social sphere in Washington where politicians could visit with each other. Her feminine influence and talent for civility brought much needed refinement to the rugged new city. Every Wednesday night during the Madison administration, Dolley hosted a public reception where all were welcome. She served punch and ice cream. These parties became so popular and crowded that they became known as Mrs. Madison’s “squeezes.”
Dolley is most remembered today for an act that has become a scene in American legend. In 1814, she was one of the last inhabitants of the capital to flee the invading British army. When Dolley left the White House, hours before it was torched along with much of the city, she rescued many important documents and artifacts of state, among them the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
Not only was Dolley one of the last to leave the besieged city, she was one of the first to return and rebuild. With most of the federal buildings destroyed, along with many private homes and businesses, there was talk of relocating the nation’s capital to Philadelphia, New York, or Baltimore. While congress was debating whether or not to move, Dolley continued to throw her famous Wednesday night parties; she encouraged the wealthy residents of D.C. in her social circle to begin funding rebuilding projects, and founded the Washington Female Orphan Asylum. Congress voted by a narrow margin to remain in the city.
Dolley’s bonnet was designed for March 4, 1809, the day that James Madison took the oath of office. Both Mr. and Mrs. Madison selected their wardrobe carefully for this occasion. Even though there we no cameras, reporters still verbally documented all of the details on such an auspicious occasion as the swearing in of a new President. Dressing too plainly would not reflect the elevated status of their station. Foreign diplomats would report back to their home country that the dress of Americans was crude and out of fashion. However, the United States had recently fought a war to throw off the rule of a monarchy, and dressing in a glittering court dress and jewels would anger the American people.
On this cool, cloudy day in March, James Madison wore a black suit of merino wool from American sheep, made for him by an American tailor. After the oath, Madison was escorted down Pennsylvania Avenue with guns and militia to the Madison house on F Street. Here, he and Dolley greeted guests and well-wishers. The crowd approved of Dolley’s attire. She had expertly mixed simplicity and luxury to create a style that fitted the First Lady of a democratic nation. Her purple gown was a simple, fine, cambric linen, and with it she wore a purple velvet bonnet, trimmed with white satin and a panache of feathers.
I used the written historical record of Dolley’s attire that day to design this bonnet. I know that at this time, Dolley favored the neoclassical style of dress that was popular in France, and that she had a love of bright, rich, colors. During James’ time as Secretary of State, Dolley’s style was influenced by the wives of European diplomats, especially the French. French bonnets in 1809 typically had a round crown and a round brim that framed the face. Dolley’s love of clothes, especially French clothes, was well known. When friends of the Madison family traveled to Europe, they would bring back gifts for Dolley: hats, dresses, trims, jewelry, and the latest fashion renderings.
To trim the bonnet, I created a rosette, also called a cockade or chou, out of white silk ribbon. Rosettes became popular hat trims, for both men and women in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Like many other elements of fashion, it was borrowed from military uniforms of the time. Officers wore ribbon cockades of various colors on their hats to indicate their rank. The white rosette on Dolley’s bonnet is a nod to popular hat trims of her day, and her new political rank as the wife of the President.