When Mary and Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House in 1861, Mary was 43 years old, a time when women her age dressed in somber grays, dull browns, and boring blues. But not Mary Todd Lincoln. For her, expensive clothes were a mark of importance, of breeding. She proceeded to dress like a peacock, draping herself in bold blues, crimson, yellow, and royal purple, attracting a lot of unwanted unattention and sparking criticism from the Washington social elite. Brought up among the overdressed ladies of Kentucky, her gowns and bonnets were ornamented with flowers, lace, dots, and bows sewn on yards of velvet, taffeta, and silk at a time of war when soldiers were going without blankets. Mary took her fashion cues from Eugenie, Empress of France, whose parties and clothes appeared in line drawings and detailed descriptions in one of Mary’s favorite magazines, Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Buoyed by a grandiose sense of self-importance coupled with her new position as the president’s wife, Mary demanded what she wanted. She expected everyone to do her bidding. She was surprised when clothing merchants sent her bills. The line between purchase and donation was fuzzy. Mary looked for donors to buy her gowns and hats, rewarding them with political favors. When she blew her four-year budget for White House renovations in under a year, she contrived several plots to secretly defray her debt. In one instance, she ordered the White House gardener into selling manure from the stables at ten cents a wagonload. It raised more stink than cash. (1) Her spending eventually came to light and became a national scandal. Lincoln was mortified and had to deal with it, all the while referring to it benignly as his beloved Mary’s silly “flub-a-dub.”
Now, back to what we were saying about Mary and her clothing:
It was an April evening. The Marine Band was playing a concert on the White House lawn. Mary and President Lincoln had invited many guests, among them Mrs. Horatio Taft. As Mrs. Lincoln approached Mrs. Taft, she spied something she wanted. Mrs. Taft was wearing a stunning bonnet trimmed with pretty purple ribbons that tied beneath her chin. Willian, the stylish French hatmaker, had just finished making Mary a bonnet with the same pretty purple ribbon. However, Willian had run out of the pretty purple ribbon before finishing Mary’s bonnet and Mary had been forced to settle for chin ties in a quieter shade of lavender. Mrs. Lincoln wanted Mrs. Taft’s pretty purple ribbons. She approached Mrs. Taft, reeling her aside, and insisted that Mrs. Taft hand over the ribbons.
Mrs. Taft was angry, but what could she do? Her mind raced with worry. Her husband Horatio was a government appointee, chief of the U.S. Patent Office. Mrs. Lincoln could get him fired and then how would they pay for teenage Julia’s private school? At a time of war, what job could Horatio get? So, begrudgingly, Mrs. Taft handed Mrs. Lincoln the pretty purple ribbons.
Later, when Julia Taft was grown up, she wrote about the incident with Mary Lincoln in her memoir, Tad Lincoln’s Father:
“This illustrates an outstanding characteristic of Mary Todd Lincoln – that she wanted what she wanted when she wanted it and no substitute!”
(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1987)