Dec 29, 2008

A First Lady a Day: 1861, 1865

This may be the most difficult installment of this series. Mary Todd Lincoln. Talk about a Complex Personality. On the plus side: Bright, well educated, polished, supportive of her husband’s career, believed in Lincoln when few others did. Deeply loved her husband and children. On the minus: high strung and high maintenance, jealous, given to occasional inappropriate outbursts. A compulsive shopper. Lauded as elegant and sophisticated at the very beginning of Lincoln’s presidency, Mary Todd could not seem to adjust her buying habits to wartime. Her clothing bills were enormous and caused serious problems and strated her off on the wrong foot very early. As a Southerner, she was reviled despite her fervent support of her husband and the Union. From her Official White House bio at :

“Though her position fulfilled her high social ambitions, Mrs. Lincoln's years in the White House mingled misery with triumph. An orgy of spending stirred resentful comment. While the Civil War dragged on, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth, and citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. When she entertained, critics accused her of unpatriotic extravagance. When, utterly distraught, she curtailed her entertaining after her son Willie's death in 1862, they accused her of shirking her social duties.”

She was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. How much truth we will ever know about her is hard to say, as so many of the contemporaries had bones to pick and found her an easy target.
Now - the Dresses.
I found at least 3 dresses that are referred to on various sites as her Inaugural dress. Should be two of course.

same gown in an 1861 Matthew Brady portrait, from

This one is certainly a 1861 ball gown. Remember, the Inaugural was in March then, so early spring in Washington. It’s elegant and formal. But those ruffles and floral wreaths are truthfully a bit young for a woman of 43, even in 1861. And the neckline very low. The effect is coquettish, not the best statement for a First Lady of a nation heading into civil war.

from - 1861 Mathew Brady portrait , for another view of this gown:

The second is I suspect the right dress for the first Inaugural Ball in 1861 and it is better, more stately. But Mary Todd did like her low necklines and again, not the best choice for a political wife.
at, a circa 1864 evening dress with alternate day bodice made by Elizabeth Keckley, shown with incorrect skirt supports, here it is with a better crinoline:
from the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System : "...a gown of royal purple velvet with a tight bodice and full skirt of the hoop-skirt period. The seams of the dress, skirt, and bodice, the hem of the skirt, and the bottom of the bodice are piped with narrow white-satin cord. The neck is trimmed with an elaborate fichu of black Alencon lace with a white edge, and a bouquet of pansies is placed at her bosom. The short puffed sleeves are made of white net and Alencon lace. The fan is purple taffeta. The dress is part of the First Ladies Collection at the National Museum of American History."

This last dress is occasionally credited as an inaugural ball gown, but I cannot verify that. If so, more likely to be second ball in 1865 -the purple and white would be appropriate for a mother in the second stages of mourning and for a First Lady during a devastating war. The style is older, the neckline is higher, the d├ęcor more subdued. And generally it’s a better dress for both the occasion and the times.

Mary gets a C for her dresses - they are stylish, but the early ones send an odd and inappropriate message, and she called FAR too much attention to her fashions and extravagance at a time when such issues needed to be in the background. If someone can tell me definitively that the purple velvet dress is the from Second Inaugural Ball, I 'll give her an A for that one.


Stacey said...

Mary Todd Lincoln is indeed a fascinating character (as is her husband)... If you're looking for a good read, check out Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, The The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave
It's not too long but has lots of great info.

Shay said...

Several of Mrs Lincoln's dresses (repros, not originals, but you can get closer to them) are on display in the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, MO.

Elizabeth Keckley's autobiography is online at Project Gutenberg.