Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How Martha Washington Lived

Have you ever fallen madly in love with a pair of shoes? Luxury footwear, combining the art form of a sculpture with the beauty of a piece of sparkling jewelry, has obsessed women for centuries. Certainly this was true in the case with Martha Washington. Tucked away in the recesses of Mount Vernon’s archival vaults is a pair of avant-garde deep purple silk high heels studded with silver sequins that Martha wore on the day of her wedding to George Washington. Emily Shapiro, curator at Mount Vernon, describes the shoes as a little sassy and definitely “over the top” for the time, “They were the Manolo Blahniks of her time.”

At the time of her marriage to George Washington in 1759, Martha was 27 and George was twenty six. Martha was one of the wealthiest women in Virginia, having inherited five plantations when her first husband died. She was a bit of a clothes horse. Then, as now, if you had wealth you flaunted it, making sure you had the best clothes ordered from London in the deepest, richest colors. Such colors set the upper classes apart from poorer classes who wore drab homespun clothes in browns, beiges and tans.

We don’t generally think of Martha Washington as a vivacious fashionista. She has come down to us after two hundred plus years as a frumpy, dumpy, plump, double-chinned Old Mother Hubbard type. There may be more design than accident in this portrayal of Martha Washington and the women of the Revolutionary War generation (‘The Founding Mothers”). The new Republic needed to make a clean break with the aristocratic ways of Europe and completely embrace simple republican virtues. Both George and Martha Washington were transformed by generations of historians into marble figures of rectitude whose dignity and decorum fostered a sense of legitimacy for the new country.

But neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.

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