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Woodrow and Edith Wilson: Costumed for the World Stage

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Edith Wilson sat in a Green Room chair for this portrait painted by Seymour Stone in 1920. When the Wilsons retired to S Street, N.W., in Washington, the portrait was taken along and still hangs today in their dining room.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of Woodrow WIlson House

Clothes provide a barometer of life, livelihood, status, and culture. They tie the wearer to a moment in history. The most available means of establishing historical provenance for clothing is photography; the maker’s labels sewn into the garment are another means. The medium of photography introduced in 1839 provides extensive contemporary documentation about costume and how it is worn. Historical photography portrays the reality of the sitter’s clothing, whereas, as the fashion scholar Christina Johnson states, “Fashion plates reflect only the most fashionable garments and present styles when they are first introduced.” Labels furnish historians and scholars with the identities of makers and manufacturers, where the garment was made, and sometimes even the owner of the garment. The first fashion designer to sew labels into his garments was the English-born Charles Frederick Worth, who rose to world fame in the Paris of Napoleon III.1

And one of Maison Worth’s famous and devoted customers was Edith Bolling Galt, whose remarkable history was accompanied by her love of style. She was to become President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, but her adventures in costume preceded that.

Born October 15, 1872, into a respected Wytheville, Virginia, family, in 1896 Edith Bolling married Norman Galt, a successful Washington, D.C., jeweler and businessman who took her away from the little town and hard times. In July 1907, they vacationed in Europe. Visiting Paris in August of that year, Mrs. Galt wrote: “Walked down the Rue de la Paix with ‘N’ [Norman], stopped at Worths’ to make a 2 o’clock appointment with Madame Birot.”2

At the Magasin de Louvre, Galt purchased for his wife a striking gray hat with black rosettes and two expensive veils. A last stop was at Perines, the noted glove maker. Returning to Maison Worth for her appointment, Mrs. Galt described her purchase: “We finally decided on the shade of heliotrope for my suit and ordered three pieces.”3 Years later she pinned a note to her taffeta and lace dress with three-quarter-length sleeves, stating: “This is my first dress made by ‘Worth’ in Paris—on my first trip to Europe.”4 There were to be many more trips to Europe for Edith Galt, both privately and in the spotlight of the world.

Eight years forward, Norman Galt was long dead, and the widow married Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States. She later described her wedding dress as “a plain black velvet gown with velvet hat trimmed with goura [feathers] . . . and had lovely orchids,” and the president wore “a cutaway coat and grey striped trousers.”5 At the Pan-American Ball in January 1916 the first lady’s ensemble of a black velvet gown with a long train of silver over blue was enhanced with a fan of gray feathers on a stem of mosaics in shades of blue resembling the ceremonial fans of the Far East.6

Displayed in an umbrella stand in the house on S Street is the flock of walking sticks used by President Wilson, most of them gifts from admirers.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of the Woodrow Wilson House

The bridegroom, freed from deep grief of his first wife’s passing, seemed more himself again and even took a greater interest in clothes. For the June 14, 1916, Preparedness Parade from the U.S. Capitol to the White House, Wilson wore “a blue sack coat, white flannel trousers, white shoes,”7 and a straw boater hat. With no waist seam, the sack or lounge coat was cut either straight or curved in front and single or double breasted.

President Wilson marched in step with men’s fashion. The years from the late nineteenth century to World War I are considered a dividing line in the democratization of clothing that affected both men and women. Mass production was the vehicle. Worth had foreshadowed this change in 1858 by deciding to incorporate machine-made elements into his clothing. Then, in the 1860s, paper patterns changed fashion.

The Worth establishment continued to enjoy high profits from European royalty and celebrity, while enjoying as much or more the open wallets of American clients like Edith Bolling Wilson. Worth’s luscious silks, chiffons, velvets, and brocades woven in the mills of Lyons continued to beguile prosperous clients even as styles changed. In the 1870s, Jean-Philippe, Worth’s son, began to assume responsibilities in the business, and thirty years later in Mrs. Wilson’s time either he or his brother Gaston-Lucien were responding to new styles that enhanced women’s mobility by freeing them from strictures of tight clothing, especially the tight-laced corset. In theory this movement in fashion was a bit radical in concept, illustrating a means by which women could take charge of their bodies. 8 In 1916, the brassiere, promoted by the former Worth designer Paul Poiret, became the latest undergarment for the less-burdened figure while ensuring an up-to-date shape. The end of World War I saw changes again in silhouette of dress and hair styles as women began to bob their hair and forgo the once-popular prewar upsweep.

President Wilson's Arrow Shirt collars, in the Amolek style commonly called “wing collars,” are fastened with mother of pearl buttons in the center front and attached to a collarless shirt. The trademark printed inside identifies the manufacturer of the heavily starched and waxed collars as Cluett, Peabody & Company.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of the Woodrow Wilson House

For men, the necktie was universal. Socks were midcalf, and collars were still short with wings, but rounded. As early as 1919 soft shirt collars appeared in a riot of forms and colors, and in both silk fabric and madras. 9 Yet the stiff, detachable shirt collars so familiar to Woodrow Wilson remained his preference. Soldiers returning home from war accustomed to the soft collars of military uniforms were no longer content to utilize the rigid uncomfortable detachable collar. By the 1920s the soft collar was universal on men’s shirts. 10

Presidents and first ladies are difficult to costume when they travel, for the demand to look perfectly attired is constant. By Wilson’s time travel had become frequent for the head of state, and he and his wife, when she was along, had to look perfect. Wilson’s momentous announcement on November 18, 1918, that he would personally attend the peace conference in Europe presented a tremendous clothing challenge to his staff. As she packed, Edith Wilson remained mindful of her obligation “to dress well as a representative of the people of the United States.” 11 Her presence marked the first official overseas trip by a president’s spouse and set a precedent for future first ladies and foreign leaders.

The demands of the presidency require large wardrobes. Some of the coats President Wilson wore in France survive today in his closet at the S Street house in Washington, including a Chesterfield and a greatcoat.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of the Woodrow Wilson House

International travel in 1918 required multiple modes of transport via ship, rail, and motorcar. The details of preparatory planning and packing for President Wilson’s European trip were enormous. Appointed a member of the U.S. Peace Commission in December 1918, Captain John T. Nightingale of the Coast Artillery Corps (CAC), U.S. Army, was charged with “making all arrangements for the sorting, labeling, transportation and final delivery in Paris of the personal baggage of the President,” his immediate party, and members of the commission. In addition, Captain Nightingale’s other tasks included responsibility for the schedule arrangements of the Special Presidential Train, the president’s June 1919 trip to Belgium, and “compiling an expense report to the Army of the Peace Commission.” Nightingale also was given the assignment of touring the devastated regions of France in January, by automobile, “for the purpose of surveying for the President’s proposed trip,” and later an assignment as officer courier for dispatches sent from London to Paris. 12

A diary entry of Tuesday, December 3, 1918, by Irwin “Ike” Hoover, White House chief usher, reveals that the personal staff closest to the president included, besides himself, Colonel Arthur Brooks, the valet, and Susie Booth, Mrs. Wilson’s longtime maid. 13 Other aides included Mrs. Wilson’s secretary, Edith Benham, and the White House stenographer, Charles C. Wagner.

A top hat in the Wilson House collection, with initials and label.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of the Woodrow Wilson House

Among the many items packed for President Wilson were his assorted hats and top hat case. Mrs. Wilson preserved the top hat worn by Wilson during this trip. In “Nor Time nor Absurdity Can Quell the Top-Hat,” Camille De Latour lamented the return of the top hat when it reappeared on the head of an English minister, in 1916. 14 Wide brimmed and somewhat curved, the top hat is today a sort of curiosity, but in Wilson’s time it was the emblem of high formality and, in public life, authority. Fedoras and Stetsons were also in Wilson’s repertoire. A client of the Knox Hat Company of New York, Wilson had a beaver high hat and fedora containing the legend: “Moveo Et Profico, Knox, New York and Stinemetz, Washington, D.C.,” trademark insignia for the Knox Hat and the reference to Stinemetz likely indicating that the hat lining was replaced at a later time. 15

President and Mrs.Wilson traveled to Europe twice to attend the Paris Peace Conference in 1918 and 1919. Packing for the journeys was a tremendous undertaking. The tag on the president’s high hat case and lid is well marked. Edith Wilson, determined to dress as befit a representative of her country, selected her clothes carefully. The casual afternoon suit she selected to wear at the Longchamps races, seen here, was a three–piece ensemble with skirt, jacket, and overblouse.

White House Historical Association

The presidential party arrived at Brest December 13, 1918. The president was in Europe for two months before leaving February 15, 1919 to return to the U.S. for a brief few weeks, after which he and his party returned to rejoin the meeting at Versailles. From Brest, the Wilsons rode by motorcar to the railroad station for an overnight train to Paris, arriving Saturday morning December 14, 1918. A grateful Europe acknowledged America’s war effort as cheering American and French soldiers and citizens greeted President Wilson along the railways and the boulevards of Paris. Shortly after arriving at the “Paris White House,” 28 rue de Monceau, the President and Mrs. Wilson hastily prepared to attend a luncheon. For this occasion, Edith wore “a new black dress with [the] fur, my black hat with the gray feathers and some of the orchids which were blue-gray.” 16

Edith Wilson remembered an incident concerning the president’s wardrobe. Scheduled to attend a luncheon at the Élysée Palace given by the president of France, Raymond Poincaré, and Madame Henriette Benucci Poincaré, the Wilsons were "taken into a large reception room and the guests were presented to us. The world and his wife were there, all in their smartest attire with uniforms and medals conspicuous in the foreground. Members of the Cabinet, and the president, wore long old-time-looking tightly-buttoned frock coats, which reminds me that as we were hurriedly going to our rooms to change for this function a young American officer dashed up with the information that no one in Paris wore cutaways, or morning coats, as we do in America, 'frocks' being the only coats used for formal wear. They were so out-of-date at home that I said: 'Oh, but I am afraid the President did not bring such a garment.' The faithful Colonel Brooks, presidential aide and later valet since the administration of William Howard Taft, saved the day by assuring them he had brought two, as 'one never knows different customs in different countries.' So my husband appeared at the lunch as he should, and we seemed suddenly to find ourselves in the act of being introduced to the whole of France." 17

Fitted at the torso and flaring at the waist, frock coats created a skirt effect. President Wilson’s black wool twill skirted frock coat, lined in silk satin and with a split in the back tails, was tailored by Bastable & Carroll of New York and was used by him from 1902 until 1919. Another label in the garment reads “Mr. Dr. W. Wilson [in script] April 1902.” 18 Likely, this frock coat is the same Wilson had tailored for his induction as president of Princeton. 19 Frock coats were later replaced by morning coats designed to curve away from the waist to expose a waistcoat.

The label inside the jacket Mrs. Wilson wore to the Longchamps races identifies Worth as the couturier.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of the Woodrow Wilson House

The placid, formal and symmetrical eighteenth-century exterior of the now-vanished palace belied the feverish activity of soldiers, aides, and clacking typewriters as meetings and planning sessions occurred inside. An unidentified London Times Paris correspondent after an interview with President Wilson, December 18, 1918, described the Wilsons’ personal accommodations:

"Mrs. Wilson’s rooms are fashioned of paneled wood or walls covered in brocade—a drawing room, bed room and boudoir and bath. Space meant for leisure. On the other side, the president quarters comprise a drawing room, bedroom and library of study in place of a boudoir. Mr. Wilson is characterized as tall, well set up with an athletic figure in his gray lounge suit he is well cut into his body. A gentleman in and in the best sense of the word an American." 20

An election in Great Britain stalled the launch of the peace conference for nearly one month, so the Wilsons visited England and Italy. At Buckingham Palace, King George V and Queen Mary feted the Wilsons with a banquet. During the war, jewels and tiaras had been locked away for safety. Using the dinner as a reason to bring them out, Lady Sandhurst asked Mrs. Wilson if she would wear a tiara. The first lady noted that she did not own one, graciously adding that she would love to see others wearing their tiaras. Earlier in the day there had been a conference with President Wilson to determine what style of dress was to be worn. Wilson explained that the U.S. chief executive never wore uniforms, as was the European custom abroad, and that regular evening clothes were suitable on every occasion. In My Memoir, Edith Wilson describes the Queen Mary’s attire: “The Queen was stunning in a white gown with the blue Order of the Garter across her low bodice, a coronet of diamonds, and other magnificent jewels. I loved looking at her. My own gown was very simple—a princess black velvet with long train and no jewels.” 21 The contrast in dress seemed unconsciously to represent the difference between a monarchy and a democracy.

From London, the New York Times, December 27, 1918, relayed an account of the first lady’s visit to the American Women’s Club as guest of honor. She was dressed in gray chiffon embroidered with jet, the report stated, and wore a black picture hat trimmed with silver fox and silver roses. 22

Mrs. Wilson’s jewelry was often high fashion. She was a first lady with a taste for ornament. This is the Peace Pin that she wears at her waist in the portrait by Seymour Stone. Measuring 6H inches across and 2H inches high, the diamond pin is an arrangement of olive branches and doves, symbols of peace.

Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

When the Wilsons visited Italy in January 1919, students of the University of Turin presented the president with a “Tyrolean” style hat, c. 1918. To the delight and excitement of the students, President Wilson wore this gift when he was awarded an honorary degree by the university. Some of the other gifts of personal attire that the Wilsons received are in the Wilson House collection. The Smithsonian Institution has a “peace pin,” presented to Mrs. Wilson by the people of France on December 16, 1918, at the Hotel de Ville (city hall). It was created by the noted French jeweler and glass designer René Lalique, who developed it from a 1906 prototype olive branch pin with birds, then referred to as pigeons. In the image resurrected after the armistice was signed, the pigeons became doves, to signify peace. 23 At this lunch President Wilson was given a gold pen with this notation: “ Le Peuple Francais offre la plume avec laquelle il signera la pix juste, humaine et durable” (The people of France offer the pen with which to sign the peace, just, humane and lasting.)24

The peace conference opened on January 18, 1919, at Versailles. Among those attending were the so-called Big Four—David Lloyd George, prime minister of Great Britain; Georges Clemenceau, French prime minister and minister of war; Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, prime minister of Italy; and Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. head of state. On the sidelines, Mrs. Wilson was very conscious of her appearance. Although a news story had noted with admiration that she would wear “strictly Made-in-America” clothes, 25 she did not. Among her surviving costumes is a Maison Worth c. 1915 French blue tailleur—a three-piece ensemble, with a skirt, jacket, and overblouse, tailor made. The fashionable straight line of the skirt featured a hem midcalf with a hook-and-eye closure hidden inside a wide pleat. Accompanying the skirt, the jacket displays a geometric pattern; black and gold thread embroidery on the collar and front coat add decorative color. With its hook-and-eye closures, it falls below the hip. Worn with the jacket was a long black silk scarf attached to the collar. Embroidery of art moderne style adorns the exterior bottom edge of the jacket cuffs. The suit’s decorative braid designs recall a military motif, which, given the time and place of its creation, is not surprising. But the floral and botanical designs associated with art nouveau are also evident in the soft interior silk lining of the jacket and in the blouse’s three-petal tulips outlined in deep purple with green leaves and pale yellow stems. A photograph from the Woodrow Wilson collection records that Mrs. Wilson wore this Worth military-style suit when she attended the Paris 1919 Longchamp races.

The casual afternoon suit Edith Wilson selected to wear at the Longchamps races was a three-piece ensemble with skirt, jacket, and overblouse.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of the Woodrow Wilson House

After several months and two voyages across the Atlantic, Wilson and other dignitaries met on June 28, 1919, to sign the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. That evening, the French President and Madame Poincaré hosted a farewell dinner for the U.S. president and first lady. The dress of the women was dazzling, the jewels plentiful, and they stood out in contrast to the men’s dark evening suits. Edith described her Worth gown as “long, tightly draped skirts (in vogue) of heavy black charmeuse, cropped in the front from a low hip line and wound tightly about the figure with lines ending in the back in a fish-tail train and sequin and color shades from black to gun metal to dark and light gray to white at the bust and shoulders.” Climaxing this memorable garment was the great diamond pin with doves of peace. Worth made Mrs. Wilson a costume tiara of sequins and rhinestones, which she wore, and she also carried a huge fan of shaded gray feathers with tortoiseshell sticks. 26

War cast a long shadow in clothes design. As troops returned home, U.S. retailers ventured that homecoming soldiers, acclimated to wearing a uniform cap, would embrace the civilian cap into their wardrobe accessories. Sellers remarked “for fall high colored caps in rough fabric will be featured.” Yet, unsure about price between retailer and manufacturer, others expressed a more careful position, noting, “We find business at present to be more or less at a standstill.” Employing a market strategy of sales to celebrate peace, welcome soldiers home, banish camouflage, and encourage soldiers to dress confidently, sellers introduced comparative pricing in the guise of “Dress Up Week.” 27 Advertising enticements by Gimbel Brothers, New York, and Wanamaker’s of Philadelphia lured men to purchase spring suits. The essay “Opinions Regarding Men’s Attire,” which appeared in Men’s Wear: The Retailer’s Newspaper, conveyed “that dress suit the occasion and in paying attention to detail when dressing hair should be dressed to display life, collar should fit the neck, scarf neatly tied and clothes be put on properly and boots be groomed.” 28 Be simply but well dressed.

On March 4, 1921, Wilson and his wife left the White House to take up private life at 2340 S Street, NW, Washington, D.C., an elegant town house purchased for them by friends. In and out of office, they had basked in outdoor activities—taking drives, playing golf, and riding horseback. But these were no longer possible after the stroke Wilson suffered in the fall of 1919. Edith packed away her riding habit and skirt and much other apparel she had worn in her six years on the world stage. In trunks and boxes they were to remain for nearly fifty years. Woodrow Wilson died on February 3, 1924. After his death, Edith continued to travel—to Europe and to China—now and then performing diplomatic-related functions that memorialized America’s progressive president. Writing to her younger brother, Randolph Bolling from the Hotel Windsor E´toile in Paris, August 29, 1926, she described the loss of her diamond pin bar enclosing a sketch. The platinum and 32 diamond jewel with scratched numbers 1644684795 on the underside was later located, as she recounted to Randolph via mail postmarked “Paris Sept. 2 1926”: “my pin has been found so don’t worry about it.” 29

This 14-karat gold and aquamarine brooch was given by President Wilson to the first lady on the occasion of their third wedding anniversary. The cushion-cut stone (square with rounded corners) is surrounded by eighty seed pearls and four diamonds.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of the Woodrow Wilson House

Edith Wilson’s interest in fashion never subsided. Gabrielle Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were two of many post–World War I designers she patronized. Styles were changing and becoming modern. The war had disseminated luxe fabrics, and Chanel introduced jersey into her collection. During a postwar trip to Paris, Edith visited the House of Chanel, ordering a knitted suit which she wore with a cloche, a bucket hat that was a symbol of the 1920s. From the designer John Redfern she bought a black velvet dress, c. 1922–25, with wraparound skirt, gathered shoulders, a front square neckline, and straight back. The slim silhouette has a tunic style overhanging bodice below the waist. This flapper-style garment gathers at the left and pulls from the right. A slight bend in the sleeves falls in fullness from the elbow and terminates in narrow self-cuffs. 30

When World War II began, Edith resumed volunteer work with the Red Cross. By that time she was shopping at home in Washington. Among her costumes is a 1942 wartime suit fashioned by the renowned women’s apparel establishment Rizik Brothers, a landmark Washington, D.C., clothing institution.

Mrs. Wilson died December 28, 1961, eleven months after President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. With her husband, she is buried in the Washington National Cathedral. Christine Sadler Coe of the Washington Post observed, “She continued to dress beautifully and was skilled enough with the needle to whip up a hat for herself when the fancy strikes.” 31

Throughout her adult life Edith Wilson witnessed the cusp of vast social and cultural changes in America—including fashionable dress. From her Worth lace and high-collar dress of the early twentieth century through the flapper and shapeless styles to accepted casual dress of the 1960s, she was mindful of the importance of a respectable appearance, dressing in a manner befitting her role as America’s first lady. It is often observed that Edith and Woodrow Wilson were always well turned-out.

This sleeveless evening dress, c. 1920–23, is from Mrs. Wilson’s fashionable postwar wardrobe. Styled in what was to be called the “flapper” mode, the flat straight silhouette was known as “androgenous.” It is made of black silk chiffon with fringe that moved with the motion of the wearer. Rhinestones and beads embellish the neckline, front skirt, and bodice.

Bruce White for The White House Historical Association/Collection of the Woodrow Wilson House