The Road to the Inauguration: 1905

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | January 12, 2017

January 12, 2017
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On the heels of a nearly three million vote plurality for the loser, Russian espionage in support for the winner, former presidents who had at one time threatened to skip the inauguration, and a daily tweet war between the President-Elect and seemingly anyone, over anything; those who cannot yet think straight might wish to step into the closet for a moment, and take stock. The 45th President of the United States is about to be inaugurated in less than a fortnight, and there is, far and wide, a desperate need to talk – about something else. Inaugural fashion, perhaps, fits nicely. To address this pressing question we look back, as usual, to see forward…

George Washington, whose inauguration was heralded by sweeping wandering pigs from the parade route, wore in 1789 his (own) powdered hair, a white shirt and ruffled cravat, brown breeches, a matching waistcoat and coat (whose silver buttons were emblazoned with spread-winged eagles), silk stockings, silver-buckled shoes and, as befit his martial past, his dress sword. Since then, it’s been downhill all the way. And yet, even the least vain of presidents have wanted to look good on their big day.

President Theodore Roosevelt, capable though he was of busting trusts, bringing peace to warring nations, and just for fun, a brisk daily walk, had, we see here, a helluva time with his tailor….

The first time Theodore Roosevelt took the presidential Oath of Office, on Saturday, September 14, 1901, his ascension to the presidency was so unexpected, he had to borrow clothes to wear to the ceremony. Just hours before, he had been hiking high in the Adirondacks; then, suddenly, President McKinley, recovering from a gunshot wound sustained in an assassination attempt the week before, worsened and died – and Vice-President Roosevelt, fresh off Mount Marcy, urgently needed something decent to wear. He scrambled, then, to borrow a frock coat, striped trousers, a waistcoat, a four-in-hand tie and patent leather shoes – that he might be sworn-in as President like a gentleman.

Some four years later Roosevelt, living in the White House and about to take the Oath of Office for a second time, was still concerned with looking the part. This, after all, would be his first formal, official inauguration. When a Massachusetts textile manufacturer offered him, on December 20, 1904, a gift that it had likewise proffered, seemingly, to at least three of his predecessors – Roosevelt, typically, bounded to accept it. On December 22nd, he replied enthusiastically:

I have received your letter of the 20th instant, stating that you had made the cloth for the inauguration suits of Messrs. Garfield, Harrison and McKinley, and that you wished to give me the cloth for a similar suit. I accept it with the utmost pleasure. Will you please send the material to M. Rock, Tailor, 315 Fifth Avenue, New York, who will make it up for me?

But his “utmost pleasure” was, between fabric and fit, shortened considerably…

In this marvelous letter, Roosevelt takes his haberdasher to task for some shoddy tailoring. Inauguration day, he explains with some annoyance, is less than two weeks away [March 4th; the date was moved to January 20th in 1937]…

February 19th, 1905

This morning I hoped the frock coat would do, though the trousers were hopeless. But on trying it on again, the cut and hang are so bad that I do not like to wear it on inauguration day; as for the trousers, I don’t think any change can help them.

Please send some good man on at once to get the coat, try it on me, & have it radically altered; can another pair of trousers be made.

The failure is very annoying, as now inauguration day is less than a fortnight off. Have the man here Tuesday morning at nine.

No doubt Messieurs Rock & Co. got Roosevelt’s wardrobe just as he wanted – for the night before his Inauguration he exulted, “Tomorrow I shall come into office in my own right. Then watch out for me!”

Clothes make the man.


Ring containing a lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair
Ring encasing Abraham Lincoln’s hair, sent to Roosevelt by John Hay the night before Roosevelt's inauguration. The Sagamore Hill Collection.

Roosevelt wore something else, quite unnoticed, at his inauguration: a ring. It too was a gift. The night before, John Hay – who, as a young man, had been one of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries and now served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of State – sent it over to the White House.  “Please wear it tomorrow,” Hay wrote. And Roosevelt did, with immense pride, as he took the Oath of Office. Four days later, in a letter describing the inauguration ceremony to a British friend, he mentioned the ring, “half ashamed,” he concluded, of writing about so “purely personal” a matter.  The ring, he explained, contained some of Abraham Lincoln’s hair, clipped from his head just after he was assassinated nearly forty years before. Because Lincoln had always been Roosevelt’s hero; because he felt that he had earned the votes, in the 1904 election, of those working men whom Lincoln called “plain people”; he would try, he wrote, to represent them “as if I had from earliest childhood made each day’s toil pay for that day’s existence.” An unnoticed piece of jewelry worn at his inauguration connected Roosevelt, then, to a revered past; a present victory; a fervent hope – all of which, at an inauguration, seems perfectly fitting.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. 1858 – 1919. The 24th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 2 pages, quarto, The White House, Washington, February 19, 1905. To clothiers Rock & Co.

Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, octavo, the White House, December 22, 1904. To Thomas Sykes of The North Adams Manufacturing Company in North Adams, Massachusetts. With transmittal envelope.

Signed Photograph, as President, black and white, folio, no place, May 19, 1905; depicting Roosevelt delivering his 1905 Inaugural Address. In the bottom margin Roosevelt has inscribed these famous lines, more or less quoting from a speech he gave many times: “In a Republic such as ours the only safety is to stand neither for nor against any man because he is rich or because he is poor… We must treat each man only on his worth as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal.” Exceptional.