Today on the blog, we’re welcoming Brian Cushing, Locust Grove’s Program Director, Distillery, and historical clothing aficionado. He’s always been interested in the clothing in the portraits of Croghan family members, and today he’s discussing the surprisingly intricate history of William Croghan’s 1820 coat and what it says about our founder.
When discussing the clothing of the past, I have often encountered a knee jerk reaction by onlookers to assume that older people dressed conservatively or retained the fashions of their youth. William Croghan was no exception to such assumptions but, while his portrait had been hanging in the parlor at Locust Grove for years, it was difficult to claim real evidence one way or another as it was difficult to discern specific details about his clothing since the overall dark colors blended in low light. This all changed when the portrait was moved across the hall to the dining room and a light shone on it. Suddenly, the collar of his coat was clearly discernible and we learned that in November of 1820, sixty-eight-year-old William Croghan was a man who kept up with fashion, or at least wanted to present himself that way.
If you look closely, you will see that the collar of the coat extends further down toward his chest before the notch and transition to lapel occurs than is typically seen on men’s coats of today or most other times in the history of the garment.
The difference can be seen clearly when viewed next to a slightly earlier gentleman. For example, this is Frank Buckle by Thomas Arrowsmith, dated 1816, from James Adam & Sons Ltd Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers. The fashionable innovation in the case of William Croghan’s coat and others of this period in particular, vs. those like Mr. Buckle’s, is how low toward his chest his collar sits.
The innovation was recent with exaggerated examples showing up in European fashion plates only that year.
The difference is also illustrated in cutting diagrams in tailoring guides of the period. In this diagram from The Taylors’ Instructor by James Queen and William Lapsley in 1809, the body of the coat was cut to accommodate a collar that sat much higher than William Croghan’s:
This diagram from The Tailor’s Friendly Instructor by J. Wyatt in 1822 illustrates how cutting out the coat was adapted to accommodate the newer style:
The style eventually went to extremes, as most tend to do, then faded, not surviving the decade. William Croghan was not presenting himself in old clothes or having new clothes made in an old style. His clothes were up to date and fashionable; he was presenting himself as a gentleman of the time he was living in. Central to his identity also was his contribution to the forming of the then young Republic. Perhaps more significant than William Croghan’s fashion sense is the medal that he wore on his excellent coat.
Major William Croghan was a veteran officer of George Washington’s army and a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati, the fraternal organization they formed. The society lives on today through their descendants who occasionally honor Locust Grove with a visit. Thanks to input from current members and researchers of the Society of the Cincinnati, we know that this is an extremely rare case of a portrait of an original member currently displayed in what was once his own house
Thanks for this excellent explanation, Brian! We’re feel very fortunate to have such a fashionable founder.