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From the Serial Set: In Diplomatic Fashion

Every so often, the Digital Resources Division comes across a unique subject of debate. Most recently, the question of “the uniform or costume of persons in the diplomatic or consular service” caught our attention. (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 1 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.) In an 1860 Senate Executive Report, transmitted to then-Secretary of State Lewis Cass and further to then-President James Buchanan, various communications detailing dress regulations of diplomats and consulates are reprinted.

Digitized Scan of p. 1 of the Senate Executive Document.

S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 1 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.

In the “Memorandum of the dress of an American Minister as fixed by the mission to Ghent” (1853), the uniform was a “blue coat, lined with white silk ; [sic] straight standing cape, embroidered with gold, single-breasted…[b]uttons plain, or if they can be had, with the artillerists’ eagle stamped upon them.” (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 3 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.) Also noted was the dress etiquette for “gala days,” exclusive to European royal courts. Ministers and secretaries abroad were expected to respect the customs of the courts they visited. For gala days, dress was “more splendid with embroidery,” and ministers were to wear “a white ostrich feather, or plumet,” in their hats. (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 3 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.)

As of the commencement of the Jackson administration in 1828, the presidential suggestion for diplomatic dress was “a black coat, with a gold star on each side of the collar near its termination…and a steel-mounted sword with white scabbard.” (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 4 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.)

When considering differences in dress customs between the United States and foreign countries, an 1853 circular from then-Secretary of State William Learned Marcy (predecessor to Cass) “earnestly recommend[s]” that diplomats “conform…to the customs of the country wherein [they are] to reside…[their] appearance[s] at court in the simple dress of an American citizen.” Prioritized by Congress was the “simplicity…and the tone of feeling among our people” in any case of diplomatic presence in a foreign court. (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 4 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.) According to Marcy, diplomatic dress decisions were left to the judgment of the individual, and their “own sense of propriety, and with a due respect” to the United States government. (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 5 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.)

Digitized scan of the 5th page of the Senate Executive Report, detailing a letter from William Learned Marcy.

S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 1 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.

Both approaches were met with criticism. Theodore Sedgwick Fay, the minister resident to Switzerland, described the “absurd and expensive uniform” worn by American diplomats in the Swiss court to have “questionable propriety” (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 5 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031), and the minister resident to BelgiumJohn Jacob Seibels, described adapting to the “ridiculous customs and formalities” of European courts to have “morbid sensibility.” (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 7 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.)

Fashion faux-pas were also documented. Henry Shelton Sanford relayed his experience in the French court, where he “appear[ed] in citizen’s dress” at a soiree, only to learn that current diplomatic dress guidelines had reached newspapers and journals across the United States and Europe, but not himself. In a position “of some delicacy and embarrassment,” Sanford explained the circumstances to the French minister of foreign affairs, Édouard Drouyn de Lhuys, and no offense to U.S.-French relations was committed.

Black-and-white photograph of Henry Shelton Sanford, standing.

Henry Shelton Sanford, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing front. Mathew B. Brady, photographer. [Between 1860 and 1880] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c30858. 

However, Peter Dumont Vroom wrote from Berlin, Germany, in 1853, that the king (Frederick William IV of Prussia) refused to speak with him “without costume respectful.” (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 8 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.) Subsequent memorials note the differences in dress custom by court – John Young Mason stated that the “political institutions of France recognize a classification of society…each member of [the diplomatic] corps from other countries exhibits the evidence of his belonging to it by his dress.” (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 14 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.)

Black-and-white photograph of John Young Mason, seated.

John Y. Mason, half-length portrait, nearly facing front. Mathew B. Brady, photographer. [Between 1844 and 1860] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c09927. 

The question came to a head in 1854, when John Young Mason and Henry Shelton Sanford interpreted dress instructions differently while in Paris. Sanford had submitted a letter of resignation to Secretary Marcy so “that the public service…may experience no embarrassment” after appearing in Parisian court “in the dress recommended by the department…the dress of an American citizen.” (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 12-13 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.) Alternatively, Mason dressed in “a specific uniform dress” based on his own discretion, and in accordance with previous foreign ministers’ actions.

Black-and-white photograph of President James Buchanan, standing at a table, in front of an ornate chair..

Buchanon sic. [President James Buchanan]. C.M. Bell, photographer. [Between 1873 and ca. 1916] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/bellcm.25616.

President Buchanan’s advice was then sought. Stating that he had “never felt prouder” to be present in a foreign court “in the simple dress of an American citizen,” President Buchanan voiced his opinion that “a plain dress sword has a more manly and less gaudy appearance” than elaborate buttons, before concluding, “I hope I am now done with this subject forever.” (S. Exec. Doc. No. 31, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., at 20 (1860) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1031.)

One Comment

  1. Heather
    July 21, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    I think we can all relate to Henry Shelton Sanford’s experience of underdressing for an event. Thanks for sharing this topic Bailey. I love reading about times when fashion/uniforms and history intersect.

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