Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The mystery of Angelica Van Buren's wedding dress

by Barbara Owens
Our 8th president (1837-1841), Martin Van Buren, had been a widower for nearly 20 years and hence had no first lady, yet someone needed to fill the position.  He called upon his daughter-in-law Angelica Singleton Van Buren (1818-1878).

Angelica has been described as a beguiling; everyone loved her, every woman wanted to be her.   She was the Jackie O of the 1800s.   She has also been described as a young, beautiful, gentle woman who was confident, poised and religious.  Raised in South Carolina as the daughter of wealthy southern plantation owners, she had a genteel southern spirit and had benefited from an excellent education, which was only afforded to few young women at the time.  

And remarkably she served as the the first lady of the United States at just 21 years old. 

Angelica Van Buren dress, textile art conservation
Angelica Singleton VanBuren's portrait was painted by artist Henry Inman in 1842.  Today it  hangs above the fireplace mantle in the Red Room of the White House . 
When Van Buren takes the presidency in 1837 he is busy with the financial burden leftover from the previous administration that has left the United States in a depression.  Understandably, Van Buren has little time for social life or parties.   Van Buren had been a widower for nearly 20 years and for the first year and eight months of his presidency, there was no First Lady in the White House.  Van Buren is the father of four sons, and while he could have asked one of his female relatives, or a spouse of one of his Cabinet members, he chose to not invite anyone to preside as hostess at the White House.  

Enter Dolley Madison, former first lady and D.C. socialite, with her young cousin Angelica in-tow for a dinner with the Van Buren men.  The president's eldest son, Abraham, is smitten with the young lady who is described as "a lovely, charming belle with "Roman goddess" features, dark, expressive eyes, fashionable corkscrew curls, and a long neck."  Angelica and Abraham are married in November 1838.  The President reportedly approved of the marriage and the ties it brought between the White House and the powerful Southern aristocracy.  Van Buren found himself in the crosshairs of the North and South; the Northern Democrats had abolitionist sentiments and the Southern Democrats wanted to ensure that slavery continued to support their agrarian economy.  

The new Mrs. Van Buren made her debut as official White House hostess on New Year's Day, 1839. It is said that Cousin Dolley coached and trained Angelica extensively for her role.  The annual White House New Year's reception, which is the only social function that had taken place thus far during Van Buren's presidency, was a massive success.    

At the end of the 1839 social season, Abraham and Angelica honeymoon by taking an extensive grand tour of Europe.  While abroad, Angelica achieves celebrity status.  She was presented to the royal courts of England and France meeting the then freshly coronated Queen Victoria as well as  France's King Louis Philippe.  

Upon returning to America, Abraham and Angelica Van Buren moved into the White House.  Angelica employed many European-style etiquette techniques she had witnessed in her extensive traveling.  While many in Washington high society admired her regal style, Angelica was criticized by the president's foes as being extravagant and monarchical at a time when the majority of the U.S. was languishing in economic despair.  

Angelica is unflappable and continues as the White House hostess, but perhaps in a more understated way.  It is well quoted that the French minister, Adolphe Fourier de Bacourt, who was often critical of Americans, claimed that "in any country" she would "pass for an amiable woman of graceful and distinguished manners and appearance." Many historians agree that President Van Buren enjoyed Angelica’s company and truly appreciated her assistance with the social duties of the presidency.

During her years as "Lady of the President's House" she brought back not only style, but true etiquette to the White House.  The President and she gave mostly small dinner parties dispensing with all large functions other than the New Year's Day reception.  When it became necessary to redecorate and replace some of the furniture that remained from the previous administration, she was careful to not be extravagant as she had learned a hard lesson of how appearances can be perceived during a time when hard economic depression gripped the land. 
Angelica in a later portrait, although the exact date of this portrait is unknown.  Notice the dress.  The neckline is similar, she clearly liked this style of dress.

Angelica’s time at the White House was also marked by personal tragedy. In 1839, she became pregnant, and give birth in March of the following year to a daughter, Rebecca.  Details are varied, some reports claim that Rebecca dies within hours, other claim that both mother and daughter were ill for several months following the birth, and that Rebecca died at the White House in the fall of 1840. Angelica and Abraham had three sons after they left the White House. During those years, they maintained close relations with former President Van Buren. Angelica Singleton Van Buren died in 1878.

Angelica Van Buren dress, art conservation by textile conservator, Gwen Spicer
Angelica Van Buren's wedding gown.  Is it the same gown as in the White House portrait?
SAC had the opportunity to rehouse the wedding dress worn by Angelica Van Buren which belongs to the United States National Park Service, Martin Van Buren Historic Site, Columbia County, New York.  The dress has creased and yellowed, is in poor condition, and is awaiting treatment.  It was at this point when the dress was identified to us as possibly being the same dress, only altered, that Angelica wears in the White House portrait.  Here at SAC we love a good historical mystery (and gosh there are plenty of them!).  The facts are that the actual fabric of the dress appears to be identical, only the color has changed over time.  The neckline and the cut of the bodice as it dips to a point in the front appears similar.  But, if the dress that SAC conserved is the wedding dress, and the White House portrait is the same dress, then shouldn't it now look like it does in the portrait?  Not necessarily so.  Keep in mind that the portrait is a painting, the artist is free to take plenty of artistic license, including making a dress appear more extravagant.  Also, Angelica learned a tough lesson about the nation's opinion of how money is spent during a depression.  Would she have a dress made, or want to appear more frugal by wearing her wedding gown?  In addition, no portraits were made at her wedding, perhaps she could think of nothing else she would want to wear when her image was captured for prosperity.  Lastly, Angelica may not have been the last person to wear this dress, perhaps a granddaughter used it later and that is why the fabric is the same, but alterations have been made.

What do you think?  Is it the same dress?

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.


  1. Do think it is same gown as wedding gown pictured . It could have been changed some over the years and yes, altered some by family member/s who may have worn it? When painting the portrait the artist could have added some to it, as his imagination led him thinking it would bring out more of her personality and flair? I am a descendent of Pres Van Buren and also his wife Maria Hoes Van Buren. (They were distant cousins) Have visited the Historic site in Columbia County a few times, as my family has lived in area, all of our lives. I would have loved to have been blessed enough to have a tiny, tiny remnant of this lovely dress for memories sake, as Angelica somehow seems very close to my heart, but know something like that is never done. So much history is in this gown and also in the home and is being taken well care of by the state and people of Kinderhook, the people who are graciously taking care of the home and giving tours. It means so much to know that their lives are being remembered in this way. I feel such pride in knowing they are my ancestors and it is active and kept so alive in this way!

  2. Not at all the same dress! The collar and sleeve cut are not at all the same. And even with alterations, you cannot change that kind of a pattern. Also if we go by color...the gown in the box looks like gold taffeta (vs. the off-white taffeta in the portrait) and the color of the fabric would never have changed so dramatically in almost 200 years given that it's preserved in tissue and it is likely kept in a climate controlled environment.

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