Dolley Madison’s Red Velvet Dress

This past week my husband and I traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina, for a bit of vintage shopping and to visit the Greensboro Historical Museum.  I’ll write more about the museum later because today I want to focus on one particular exhibit – that showing some personal items of First Lady Dolley Madison.  For those of you not in the USA, Dolley was the wife of our fourth president, James Madison.  She was a very popular figure during her time in the White House, and North Carolinians are proud to claim her as a native daughter.

Dolley was born in Guilford County, near Greensboro in 1768, though her family moved to Virginia when she was a child. In 1794 she married politician James Madison who became president in 1809.  During his presidency the US and Britain went to war in the War of 1812.  Things went badly for the United States, and in 1814 the British captured Washington, DC, and burned much of the city including Dolley’s home, the White House.

In August of 1814, President Madison had left Washington, leaving Dolley in the city with orders to leave if the British got close.  When it became apparent that the city was going to fall into enemy hands, Dolley had the staff tear down the red velvet draperies, newly made from silk velvet from France.  The presidential china and silver were wrapped in the velvet to cushion them, and then a portrait of President Washington was removed and sent to New York for safekeeping.  Dolley sent the wagon containing the silver and china on to safety, and then she fled the city.  Hours later the White House burned.

Eventually the United States did win the war, and Dolley was hailed as a national heroine.  Unfortunately she was left in poverty after her husband died in 1836.  She was forced to sell the Madison plantation, Montpelier, and later, her husband’s papers, in order to survive.  She died in Washington in 1849, leaving her possessions to her son and to her niece and companion,  Anna Payne.

Several years later Dolley’s son held an auction of many of her personal items.  Anna Payne bought as many of the items as she could, which then were passed down through her family.  The last of the line was her granddaughter-in-law, who died in 1956.  After her death, a trunk containing the Dolley Madison items were found in her attic of her house in Pennsylvania.  A group of women from Greensboro who called themselves the Dolley Madison Memorial Association traveled to the auction of the granddaughter-in-law’s estate and purchased the trunk.  It and the contents were donated to the Greensboro Historical Museum in 1963.

In the trunk was a red velvet dress that dates to the 1810s.  Instead of being made of thin dressmaking velvet, the fabric is a heavy-weight fabric of the type used for draperies.  I’m sure you have figured out by now that many historians and museum workers have speculated that the dress was made from the curtains that were saved that day in August, 1814.  And it makes sense, as surely many of Dolley’s dresses were destroyed in the fire.

The problem has been in trying to prove the theory.  The DAR thought they had a scrap of the fabric from the draperies, but examination under a high-powered microscope proved that the scrap was not very worn velvet, as they had assumed, but was a satin weave.  That eliminated the possibility of comparing the two fabrics as the DAR piece could not have come from the draperies.

There is quite a bit of documentation concerning the fabric of the draperies.  We know it was red velvet from France.  We know it was saved from the fire.  We also know that Dolley held onto the dress throughout her life.  But we do not know if the dress was indeed made from the famous fabric.

The original dress. Photo copyright Smithsonian Institution

Today, the Greensboro Historical Museum no longer displays the original dress as it is much too fragile.  A reproduction was made in 1988, and the original was put into storage.  It was loaned to the Smithsonian for a special show, and when it was returned to Greensboro, it was put on display for several months.  It now rests in its specially made storage box, away from view.

Some of the original items are on view, including a pair of white satin slippers, a card case, and two glass perfume bottles.

There is a fantastic video that was made for C-SPAN, narrated by the curator at the museum, Susan Joyce Webster.  It really is so great, and has Webster showing the original dress and pointing out the details.  It’s seventeen minutes well-spent.

This dress is also a reproduction.  It came to the museum through a great niece in 1950 and was not part of the Madison treasure trunk that was found in the attic.

If you watch the video you will see just how close this treasure came to being lost.  Considering all the twists and turns of the story, it is really quite amazing that the items were found and saved.


Filed under Curiosities, Museums, North Carolina

20 responses to “Dolley Madison’s Red Velvet Dress

  1. Thanks for the link to video — that trunk with roller printed fabric lining — wow!


  2. Lizzie…I found the information about Dolly Madison VERY interesting…especially for someone who got a “D” in history. I will send a copy of this write- up to my DAR friend who is a staunch member….she will surely appreciate today’s history lesson. Thanks much it was truly interesting.

    P.S. What did Dolly Madison have to do with the popular Dolley Madison Cakes that carry her name??? The popular cup cakes may be out of your area of expertease. Just a bit of humor. smile.


  3. Diana coleman

    I was intrigued by the spelling of Dolley, never having heard this before. I read on Wickipedia that her birth certificate read Dollie, but the spelling was changed often…..Dolly, Dolley and Dollie. Interesting!


  4. Thank you for this! Super interesting. I’d like to see the original dress up close.


  5. Loved that video – thank you for the link!


  6. Diana coleman

    PS….guess I’d better learn to spell Wikipedia, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Such an intriguing story Lizzie. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great story! I know of a “Dolley Madison” sofa (1 of a pair) found and given back to Mrs. Kennedy when she undertook that massive search for items belonging to the White House. I can’t understand why these items were not purchased by the Gov’t! at the time!? Bless Mrs. Kennedy – she and her Committee – nothing would have been saved? Thank You for this …now I know where /when the sofa was purchased!


  9. Christina

    What a fascinating piece of history and video presentation. A real insight into someone’s life through clothing. The circumstances surrounding the velvet dress is a wonderful story. I loved the reference to Dolley Madison wearing the silk turban in later years. Great post Lizzie.


  10. Pingback: Greensboro Historical Museum | The Vintage Traveler

  11. Great dress and a great story! Of course she made a dress out of the drapes…wouldn’t you?


  12. Hi! I’m the DAR’s curator who brought our scrap over to compare. We (DAR and Smithsonian staff) compared stories and documentation in our files and realized it was an earlier curator who rashly speculated –SPECULATED!–that “maybe the velvet is from…”. There is NO other documentation or reason to connect this velvet with the draperies. Common sense: The draperies were gov’t property which would go back to the White House to be used when it was rebuilt. Dolley did not need to make a dress from leftover fabric (which she had no access to or right to anyway). We need to stop spreading this “what if” legend…historian’s fault in the first place but let’s try to stop the damage! :-)–Alden O’Brien


    • Hi Alden; thanks so much for the comment. Are you thinking that perhaps we’ve all seen Gone With the Wind one too many times?

      PS: I hope the museum has another costume exhibition in the works. I loved Fashioning the New Woman.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.