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The Clothes Lincoln Wore

March 2023
1min read

Mr. Lincoln’s wardrobe remains the prototype of the armor of Nineteenth-Century statesman. Rooted in the noble visual line of his heroes, Webster and Clay, it was essential to his career before the bar and in elected office. Within this proper black shell, affected by all ambitious men, burned the emotions of the convulsive Nineteenth Century—including the rich humanity of Old Abe. It was the almost morbid vestment of the Public Person. It was such a frock coat that unfurled the lawyer’s flourish; it was just such shirts that Douglas and Stanton stuffed; on very similar trousers frontiersmen slopped whisky in deadly Dodge City. From proper Boston to rowdy San Francisco, this was the American male’s sartorial pose, The Look. Its purpose and perhaps only vestigial virtue was dignity: sometimes, as in Lincoln’s case, this was virile and authentic; but more often it was merely pompous or fraudulent. In this outfit, one man bribed his senator, another delivered the Gettysburg Address.

To the right, I trace the development of The Look from 1846 to the fatal war years. The sleek, rapier-sheathed look of the Forties with its typical double-notched lapel ( top ) progresses into the almost Byronic looseness of the Fifties and Sixties, but the oppressive discomfort of dark, heavy broadcloth is constant, relieved only in summer by a white linen jacket. Finally, President Lincoln is seen in the full panoply of The Look, dressed very much as he was at the moment of entering Ford’s Theater.

Men’s underwear was in the Nineteenth Century a delicate question. But a great deal of detective work leads me to conclude that he must inevitably have encased his six-foot frame in the standard pullover shirt, with buttoning. The drawers were separate. The more modern union suit appeared later, in the Nineties. The outer dress shirt was always a pull-over, with detachable collar. The open coat shirt was not invented till about 1912. Mr. Lincoln chose to wear boots called half-Wellingtons rather than Congress gaiters with elastic insteps.

Mr. Lincoln’s best suit, incidentally, links him curiously with modern times. He bought it from Brooks Brothers in New York. They have, alas, no record of what they charged him.

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