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.
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.