As the first President of the newly-formed United States of America, George Washington was acutely aware that his his every decision would be scrutinized, and his every move would set a precedent for how the nation’s future chief executives should act. As a firm believer in the republican principles laid out in the new U.S. Constitution, Washington took great pains to avoid looking, speaking, or acting like a monarch whenever he made a formal public appearance. In a very class-conscious society that placed a high value on symbolism, Washington sought to appear refined and respectable — as would befit the leader of a country — while avoiding the luxurious fabrics and excessive finery that represented royalty.
In terms of fashion, it was a fine line to walk. Furthermore, Washington believed it was critically important for the nation’s President to be dressed in American-made clothing. The only problem was that American manufacturing was in its infancy in the 1780s, having been stifled for decades by British colonial policy, and good cloth was extremely hard to find. American “homespun” clothing, while often hailed as a patriotic fashion choice, was infamous for its crude, rough quality.
Thankfully for Washington, one of his former comrades from the Continental Army was able to solve his sartorial dilemma. Connecticut native Jeremiah Wadsworth, the former Commissary General of the Continental Army, had already established himself as a wealthy merchant, investor, and speculator in the years following the Revolutionary War, and one of his many ventures was the Hartford Woolen Manufactory, established in 1788. Hearing good reports about the quality of cloth from Wadsworth’s mills, and desperate to find something decent to wear for his upcoming inauguration, Washington charged his former quartermaster and good friend Henry Knox with traveling to Hartford to investigate personally. In April 1790, after inspecting a sample of Hartford-made cloth and buttons from Knox, Washington wrote in reply: “My dear Sir, The cloth & Buttons which accompanied your [letter]… really do credit to the Manufactures of this Country.”
A few weeks later, Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States, wearing an understated, yet well-made brown suit of fine cloth manufactured by Wadsworth’s Hartford Woolen Manufactory. The cloth was so exquisite that the next day, several patriotically-inclined newspapers criticized Washington for wearing a suit of imported, foreign-made fabric, believing it impossible to obtain such high quality wool from an American factory. Washington was happy to provide the receipts that proved his suit was made of Hartford-produced wool.
The next year, as Washington was preparing to deliver the first State of the Union address to Congress, he once again turned to Jeremiah Wadsworth’s wool factory to provide the fine cloth he needed for such an important occasion. On January 8, 1790, as Washington delivered his brief, thousand-word speech to Congress, he was once again dressed in Connecticut’s finest. The Hartford Courant later described the President’s appearance in detail:
The President of the United States… was dressed in a crow-colored suit of clothes, of American manufacture: the cloth appeared to be of the finest texture — the color of that beautiful changeable hue, remarked in shades not quite back. This elegant fabric was from the manufactory in Hartford.
American dress clothes for a quintessentially American address was on full display, today in Connecticut history.
Gene Tempest, “The President’s New Clothes,” PBS American Experience
“First Annual Address to Congress,” The Washington Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon