New Montpelier exhibit to tell Dolley Madison’s life story

In the 1800s, people turned to icons such as First Lady Dolley Madison to spot the latest fashion trends, just as people adopt style ideas from today’s icons. The new exhibit Dolley Madison’s Life Through Fashion: Dressing the Part at James Madison’s Montpelier uses the clothing of Dolley Madison to trace the scope of her fascinating life and the significant contributions she made to our young nation. The temporary exhibit will treat visitors to eight richly detailed gowns created for Dolley Madison: America’s First Lady, part of the PBS “American Experience” film series. The exhibit features a video clip showing how the costumes were created using historic fashion research and costume sketches. The dresses will be on display on the mansion’s second floor from June 15, 2011– March 31, 2012.

“The costumes from the PBS documentary Dolley Madison: America’s First Lady tell the fascinating story of America’s defining first lady,” said Michael C. Quinn, James Madison’s Montpelier president. “Visitors will see the kind of clothing Dolley wore in each phase of her life, including: a muted silk day dress from her time as a young Philadelphia Quaker; a colorful striped dress from her early years as James Madison’s wife; a re-creation of her stunning buff velvet inaugural gown and turban; and a red ermine-trimmed over dress of the kind she wore to set a courageous example after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812.”

Dolley Madison made a profound impact on the newly-established country, spending 16 years as a social icon in the nation’s new Washington capital. She served as hostess for the widowed President Thomas Jefferson while James Madison was secretary of state, and created and defined the role of first lady during the eight years of Madison’s presidency. Dolley Madison took it upon herself to rally a volunteer effort to help fund and equip the Lewis and Clark expedition. As first lady, she presided over the first inaugural ball, brought together political adversaries in social settings, and set the precedent for first ladies championing causes by founding the Washington Female Orphan Asylum.

By the time Dolley Madison died in 1849, she had seen sweeping changes in our young nation. She had seen the United States achieve and defend its nation status through the American Revolution and War of 1812. She knew personally every president from George Washington to Zachary Taylor. She sent the first private telegraph message, had her photograph taken by Mathew Brady, and was present for the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. In recognition of her service, Mrs. Madison was granted an honorary seat in Congress. A grateful nation honored her contributions with the largest state funeral Washington had ever seen.

“In addition to recognizing Dolley Madison’s political stature, people also viewed Dolley Madison as a fashion icon,” said Peggy Vaughn, Montpelier vice president of communications and visitor services. “One of her contemporaries once remarked, ‘Mrs. Madison’s turbans are as famous in Washington to-day as her snuff box.’ But to Dolley, clothing was more than just a way to display beauty; it was a way to communicate. Recognizing the importance of her position as first lady, Dolley carefully selected her clothing and accessories to set a ‘cultured, but not courtly’ tone for the new country, according to another contemporary.”

Dolley Madison faced financial struggles when she returned to Washington after James Madison’s death. She was still considered Washington’s grand dame and was often welcomed to the finest dinners and parties. Unable to afford new clothing, she fashioned more conservative mourning dresses from the luxurious dresses she once wore as first lady.

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