Replicating George Washington’s Silk Suit: A Presidents Day Story

DePaola’s first test reconstruction (in muslin) of Washington’s inauguration suit, which will ultimately be made in silk.

Philip DePaola, a second-year student in FIT’s Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice program, grew up visiting Colonial Williamsburg, listening to the historical interpreters there. Now, he has combined an interest in that  period with his passion for tailoring and sewing by reconstructing one of George Washington’s silk suits from 1789. The original suit is in the collection of the Morristown (N.J.) National Historical Park, and DePaola reconstructed it to create an avenue for preventive conservation for the original suit.

The first President wore the suit on April 30, 1789, the day of his  inauguration. It consists of a coat, waistcoat, and breeches, all in a matching ribbed silk. The recreation of the suit is still in process, DePaola says, but his goal is to give the completed ensemble to the historical park so the institution can display it in place of the original if they choose to. This allows museum visitors to experience history without exposing  the original garment to further deterioration. (The original garment is shown below.)

One of DePaola’s goals is to demonstrate that institutions and conservators can use a more systematic approach to historical reconstruction as a method of both research and preservation, and that there is an  wealth of knowledge to be gained by researching material culture, specifically the way clothing is made and worn.

To that end, DePaola made the suit using the same techniques that would have been used in 1789, which he found gratifying in myriad ways. “I was measuring the inside of one of the pockets of the coat,” he recalls, “and in that moment my hand was probably where George’s was, and this connection with history was so rewarding.”

Philip DePaola with George Washington's original suit
DePaola with Washington’s original suit.

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