The True George Washington: Tastes and Amusements

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Tastes and Amusements

Manner of Dress

A market trait of Washington's character was his particularity about his clothes; there can be little question that he was early in life a good deal of a dandy, and that this liking for fine feathers never quite left him. When he was about sixteen years old he wrote in his journal, "Memorandum to have my Coat made by the following Directions to be made a Frock with a Lapel Breast the Lapel to Contain on each side six Button Holes and to be about 5 or 6 Inches wide all the way equal and to turn as the Breast on the Coat does to have it made very long Waisted and in Length to come down to or below the bent of the knee the Waist from the armpit to the Fold to be exactly as long or Longer than from thence to the Bottom not to have more than one fold in the Skirt and the top to be made just to turn in and three Button Holes the Lapel at the top to turn as the Cape of the Coat and Bottom to Come Parallel with the Button Holes the Last Button hole in the Breast to be right opposite to the Button on the Hip."

In 1754 he bought "a Superfine blue broad cloth Coat, with Silver Trimmings," "a fine Scarlet Waistcoat full Lac'd," and a quantity of "silver lace for a Hatt," and from another source it is learned that at this time he was the possessor of ruffled shirts. A little later he ordered from London "As much of the best superfine blue Cotton Velvet as will make a Coat, Waistcoat and Breeches for a Tall Man, with a fine silk button to suit it, and all other necessary trimmings and linings, together with garters for the Breeches," and other orders at different times were for "6 prs. of the Very neatest shoes," "A riding waistcoat of superfine scarlet cloth and gold Lace," "2 prs. of fashionable mix'd or marble Color'd Silk Hose," "1 piece of finest and fashionable Stock Tape," "1 Suit of the finest Cloth & fashionable colour," "a New Market Great Coat with a loose hood to it, made of Bleu Drab or broad cloth, with straps before according to the present taste," "3 gold and scarlet sword-knots, 3 silver and blue do, 1 fashionable gold-laced hat."

As these orders indicated, the young fellow strove to be in the fashion. In 1755 he wrote his brother, "as wearing boots is quite the mode, and mine are in a declining state, I must beg the favor of you to procure me a pair that is good and neat." "Whatever goods you may send me," he wrote his London agent, "let them be fashionable, neat and good of their several kinds." It was a great trial to him that his clothes did not fit him. "I should have enclosed you my measure," he wrote to London, "but in a general way they are so badly taken here, that I am convinced that it would be of very little service." "I have hitherto had my clothes made by one Charles Lawrence in Old Fish Street," he wrote his English factor. "But whether it be the fault of the tailor, or the measure sent, I can't say, but, certain it is, my clothes have never fitted me well."

It must not be inferred, however, that Washington carried his dandyism to weakness. When fine clothes were not in place, they were promptly discarded. In his trip to the Ohio in 1753 he states that "I put myself in an Indian walking Dress," and "tied myself up in a Match Coat,"?that is, an Indian blanket. In the campaign of 1758 he wrote to his superior officer "that were I left to pursue my own Inclinations, I would not only order the Men to adopt the Indian dress, but cause the Officers to do it also, and be at the first to set the example myself. Nothing but the uncertainty of its taking with the General causes me to hesitate a moment at leaving my Regimentals at this place, and proceeding as light as any Indian in the Woods. 'T is an unbecoming dress, I confess, for an officer; but convenience, rather than shew, I think should be consulted." And this was such good sense that the general gave him leave, and it was done.

With increase of years his taste in clothes became softened and more sober. "On the other side is an invoice of clothes which I beg the favor of you to purchase for me," he wrote to London. "As they are designed for wearing apparel for myself, I have committed the choice of them to your fancy, having the best opinion of your taste. I want neither lace nor embroidery. Plain clothes, with a gold or silver button (if worn in genteel dress) are all I desire." "Do not conceive," he told his nephew in 1783, "that fine clothes make fine men more than fine feathers make fine Birds. A plain genteel dress is more admired, and obtains more credit than lace and embroidery, in the Eyes of the judicious and sensible." And in connection with the provisional army he decided that "on reconsidering the uniform of the Commander in Chief, it has become a matter of doubt with me, (although, as it respects myself personally, I was against all embroidery,) whether embroidery on the Cape, Cuffs, and Pockets of the Coat, and none on the buff waistcoat would not have a disjointed and awkward appearance." Probably nowhere did he show his good taste more than in his treatment of the idea of putting him in classic garments when his bust was made by Houdon.

"In answer to your obliging inquiries respecting the dress, attitude, &c.," he wrote, "which I would wish to have given to the statue in question, I have only to observe, that, not having sufficient knowledge in the art of sculpture to oppose my judgment to the taste of connoisseurs, I do not desire to dictate in the matter. On the contrary I shall be perfectly satisfied with whatever may be judged decent and proper. I should even scarcely have ventured to suggest, that perhaps a servile adherence to the garb of antiquity might not be altogether so expedient, as some little deviation in favor of the modern costume."

Washington, as noted, bought his clothes in England; but it was from necessity more than choice. "If there be any homespun Cloths in Philadelphia which are tolerably fine, that you can come reasonably at," he said to his Philadelphia agent in 1784, "I would be obliged to you to send me patterns of some of the best kinds?I should prefer that which is mixed in the grain, because it will not so readily discover its quality as a plain cloth." Before he was inaugurated he wrote "General Knox this day to procure me homespun broadcloth of the Hartford fabric, to make a suit of clothes for myself," adding, "I hope it will not be a great while before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress. Indeed, we have already been too long subject to British prejudices." At another time he noted in his diary with evident pride, "on this occasion I was dressed in a suit made at the Woolen Manufactory at Hartford, as the buttons also were." But then, as now, the foreign clothes were so much finer that his taste overcame his patriotism, and his secretary wrote that "the President is desireous of getting as much superfine blk broad Cloth as will make him a suit of Clothes, and desires me to request that you would send him that quantity ... The best superfine French or Dutch black?exceedingly fine?of a soft, silky texture?not glossy like the Engh cloths."

A caller during the Presidency spoke of him as dressed in purple satin, and at his levees he is described by Sullivan as "clad in black velvet; his hair in full dress, powdered and gathered behind in a large silk bag; yellow gloves on his hands; holding a cocked hat with a cockade in it, and the edges adorned with a black feather about an inch deep. He wore knee and shoe buckles; and a long sword, with a finely wrought and polished steel hilt, which appeared at the left hip; the coat worn over the sword, so that the hilt, and the part below the coat behind, were in view. The scabbard was white polished leather."

About his person Washington was as neat as he desired his clothes to be. At seventeen when surveying he records that he was

"Lighted into a Room & I not being so good a Woodsman as ye rest of my Company striped myself very orderly & went in to ye Bed as they called it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw?Matted together without Sheets or any thing else but only one thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice, Fleas &c. I was glad to get up (as soon as ye Light was carried from us) I put on my Cloths & Lay as my Companions. Had we not have been very tired I am sure we should not have slep'd much that night. I made a Promise not to Sleep so from that time forward chusing rather to sleep in ye open Air before a fire as will appear hereafter." The next day he notes that the party "Travell'd up to Frederick Town where our Baggage came to us we cleaned ourselves (to get Rid of ye Game we had catched y. Night before)" and slept in "a good Feather Bed with clean Sheets which was a very agreeable regale."

Wherever he happened to be, the laundress was in constant demand. His bill from the washer-lady for the week succeeding his inauguration as President, and before his domestic mnage was in running order, was for "6 Ruffled shirts, 2 plain shirts, 8 stocks, 3 pair Silk Hose, 2 White hand. 2 Silk Handks. 1 pr. Flanl. Drawers, 1 Hair nett."

The barber, too, was a constant need, and Washington's ledger shows constant expenditures for perfumed hair-powder and pomatum, and also for powder bags and puffs. Apparently the services of this individual were only for the arranging of his hair, for he seems never to have shaved Washington, that being done either by himself or by his valet. Of this latter individual Washington said (when the injury to William Lee unfitted him for the service), "I do not as yet know whether I shall get a substitute for William: nothing short of excellent qualities and a man of good appearance, would induce me to do it?and under my present view of the matter, too, who would employ himself otherwise than William did?that is as a butler as well as a valette, for my wants of the latter are so trifling that any man (as William was) would soon be ruined by idleness, who had only them to attend to."