Fashion and Politics

This resource is adapted from the New-York Historical Society’s Saving Washington: The New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790-1848 curriculum.

Dolly Madison’s French empire-style, long-sleeved, white silk satin, short train, open robe with embroidered red and pink flowers along the border and down the sleeves, as well as butterflies, dragonflies, and phoenixes on the back and sides.
Dolley Madison’s Silk Satin Open Robe

Dolley Madison’s Silk Satin Open Robe. The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Document Text

Memorandum to Mr. Zantzinger for Purchases
2 Looking Glasses, long, and large as can be bought for $100.00
100 yds the best carpeting that can be had for $1 pr yd—100.00
1 piece Black Levantine, 1 piece cheap white satin
1 piece queens grey florence silk, 20 yds Blond Lace 3 inches wide—
1 small Box assorted Feathers, do. Flowers, do. Ribbons—
2 pieces of fine cambric a 2 or three Dolls pr. yd.
2 pieces pocket Kerchiefs Cambric, at 75 Cents or one Doll pr. kerchief
10 yds fine Lace at 4 or 5 Dolls pr. yd—1 dito at 2 dols, narrow/
2 doz. pr. white & one doz pr. black silk stockings large size—
2 doz pr. white Kid gloves long, & large—4 doz short do assorted colours
1 Doz pr. shoes with heels—one doz pr. without—
—1 piece white crape— —a print, of the bust, of N. Bonaparte, large as life, taken by an elève of Davide; it may be found in the shops of the Marchands des graveures <…>the price some months since was, 20 francs. —4 Orange, or bright yellow Marino Shawls not exceeding 12 or 15 Dollars—one large white shawl $20 or 25 with a rich border—Two Spring bonnets—Two dito for Winter—Two of them for a large Head—one of each for a smaller head, all for the morning
one douzn fanciful but very cheap snuff boxes

Dolley Payne Todd Madison’s Memorandum to Mr. Zantzinger for Purchases, [1801-1807], in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004.


Political parties were a serious business in the Federal period. Men of all races and social classes choose sides over how best to run the new nation. Although they could not vote, many women followed politics very closely and formed party allegiances.

Women were discouraged from speaking publicly about politics, so they signaled their political opinions through their fashion choices. Federalist women wore golden eagles or black cockades. Republican women wore Phrygian caps. Wearing fashions and fabrics imported from different countries was a way to show support for different foreign policies.

About the Image

Dolley Madison was the first First Lady to live in Washington D.C. She understood that fashion could both signal political opinions and shape the image of the presidency and country. For example, this particular dress of hers is distinctively French. Dolley loved French fashion, but this dress also symbolized her political party’s support of France over England. The style of the dress also suggests the clothing worn by women in ancient Greece. By wearing it, Dolley reinforced the United States’s intellectual connections to ancient Athens, the first democracy in Western history.

The document is a shopping list Dolley sent to a friend who was traveling to France. As First Lady, Dolley spent a lot of money on her wardrobe. She once spent nearly $2,000 (almost $60,000 in today’s currency) in a single trip. This shows that Dolley understood it was her responsibility to look prosperous and elegant since she was a visual representation of her husband’s presidency.


  • cockade: A knot of ribbons worn as a pin to symbolize a cause or allegiance.
  • Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.
  • Phrygian cap: A cone-shaped hat worn in Roman times that came to symbolize personal freedom and liberty during the American Revolution.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you notice about this dress? What impression does it give?
  • Why and how did women use clothing to express their political opinions?
  • Why did Dolley Madison take her clothing choices as First Lady so seriously?

Suggested Activities

  • APUSH Connection: 4.2: The Rise of Political Parties and the Era of Jefferson
  • Invite students to use the historical currency converter to determine what Dolley Madison’s French shopping list would cost in today’s money. Then ask students to put together an outfit with the same budget that symbolizes their ideal American leader.
  • After studying Dolley Madison’s dress, ask students to research the fashion choices of another First Lady in American history and answer the following: What is considered their signature look? What did this look symbolize? What did it say about the country and/or the presidency? How did the public respond to their choices?
  • Teach these items together with Dolley Madison’s life story and ask students to consider how the primary sources enrich the information they learned from the biography.
  • Compare these sources to those from the resource Republican Motherhood and ask students to reflect on whether Dolley was following or subverting Federal period expectations for American women.



Source Notes