Mary Todd Lincoln had the misfortune of being an ambitious woman during a time when she was expected to be mere adornment—and it made her miserable. History recalls the first lady as a moody one, perhaps due to an undiagnosed, much-speculated-about mental illness (the way she was lambasted by the press certainly did not help). So this unhappy woman who lived over 150 years ago did what many modern ones do when they get the sads: She shopped.
“Frustrated in with her own goals, married to a man who was able to take her to the place she wanted to get—the ultimate seat of power—but still unhappy, Mrs. Lincoln put a lot of energy into buying jewelry and having dresses made,” Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, told The Daily Beast. “She would go to her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, and order 15 dresses at a time. It would take months for Keckley to make them all.”
One of those pieces, a rose pink capelet with black lace detailing at the neck, is part of “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States,” a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The show is the museum’s first-ever attempt to center the stories of the presidents’ wives. It opened in D.C. and online this week, and explores the lives of everyone from Martha Washington to Melania Trump through portraiture, plus a few items of clothing.
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