New book studies Jefferson’s style, etiquette

New book studies Jefferson’s style, etiquette

By Page H. Gifford

They say that clothes make the man.

In her new book, Gaye Wilson, a historian and costume designer, focuses on how Thomas Jefferson dressed throughout his life and how that wardrobe related to larger political concerns.

Wilson explained that her inspiration for writing the book came from her career as a clothing historian and costume designer for the theater. A professor with a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Edinburgh, a master of fine arts and a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Texas, her knowledge of historical clothing and textiles gives Wilson a solid base for her exploration of Jefferson’s image through his attire. She said her background made her aware of Jefferson’s appearance in each portrait throughout his life.

“It raised the larger question of how his changing image related to the political scene in which he was a principal player,” she wrote in her book. Wilson learned that Jefferson’s choice of dress wasn’t just about projecting his own image or status in society, but to a broader extent reflected his thoughts as a statesman and his political views.

“I argue in my book that his choice of clothing during his presidency supported his intent that the American Republic be based and function on diplomatic principles,” she said. “He worried that the Republic might fall back into a totalitarian regime, as historically many republics had done. The most immediate example was France, as the French Republic came under the dictatorship of Napoleon.”

During Jefferson’s time period, much of men’s attire could be considered excessive. Some of it was meant to highlight one’s status in society and could be seen as a hangover from previous centuries of indulgence.

Wilson said that Jefferson and his political colleagues pushed against people who were more inclined to aristocratic and elitist principles. Jefferson dressed down during his presidency in order to identify with the people and show he was simply their representative.

In her book Wilson offers many different stories of how friends and adversaries encountered Jefferson.

“One example was Sen. William Plumer of New Hampshire,” Wilson said. “He was surprised when first introduced to the president that a tall man entered the room dressed in old, soiled clothes and worn shoes that he mistook for a serving person. Plumer concluded, ‘I certainly dress as well as the first officer of the nation.’ But when invited to dinner later, he met a Jefferson dressed in a new black suit, silk stockings, clean linen and shoes, and hair well-groomed and powdered. Plumer added, ‘His dinner was elegant and rich.’ Jefferson could keep them guessing.”

“I have not found a pattern as to when and to whom he chose to dress up or down, but I do think he pushed against the more elegant image set in Washington and was attempting to give a more egalitarian image to the presidency,” Wilson said.

Well known for being a southern gentleman and scholar, Jefferson used etiquette to counter his dressing down.

“His food and wine served to guests was of the best quality and elegantly served. His conversation was reported as scintillating and correct, as were his manners,” she said. “Even political adversaries complimented his taste, intellect and decorum. He might dress in old, worn and mismatched clothing, but he was always the gentleman.”

One of Jefferson’s first important documents, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, published in August 1774, reminded King George “that he is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government, erected for their use.” This seemed to be the manner in which he saw the office of president: “the chief officer of the people” but not necessarily above the people.

Jefferson’s view of fashion seemingly shunned the excesses of a bygone era and its trappings, seen in the velvet, silks, brocades and jewels that elevated those who could afford them to a higher level. Perhaps his dressing down could be seen as rebellion.

Wilson will speak more about her book to the Friends of the Library Wednesday (April 3) at 10 a.m. at the Fluvanna County Public Library. All are welcome.


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