Colonial Williamsburg omits slave from image touting Fashion Week

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"The Washington Family" by Edward Savage. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
“The Washington Family” by Edward Savage. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A Fashion Week tweet by Colonial Williamsburg prompted criticism from a nationally recognized slavery expert Thursday.

The CW tweet showed an image of George Washington, seated in a chair, wearing breeches and leather boots.

“#Fashion was just as important in the 18th-century as it is today,” the tweet said. “Learn more about colonial attire.”

There was also a link, followed by the hashtag “#FashionWeek.” At the top of the tweet ran a message saying: “skinny jean & boots.” Underneath it read: “hot look, fall 1789.”

Adam Rothman, a Georgetown history professor and a member of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, saw the tweet and responded.  

“Very funny,” Rothman tweeted. “But do you know what else was fashionable in 1789? Look at the whole painting.”

Rothman added a link to the National Gallery of Art’s website, where the oil painting, “The Washington Family” by Edward Savage, is part of the Andrew W. Mellon Collection. Rothman used the hashtag “#slaveryarchive.” 

In the background of the portrait, standing behind the Washingtons, is the figure of a slave, seen in profile. That portion of the painting, along with Washington family members, was cropped out of CW’s tweet.

Fashion Week CW tweet
(Courtesy CW Twitter)

Several things struck Rothman about the CW tweet, he said in a phone interview Thursday.

For one, he had just discussed the portrait in class Wednesday.

Also, the painting illustrates several themes, including its depiction of Washington and his family at the beginning of his presidency, he said.

The Washingtons are surrounded by symbols of luxury and their elite status, including clothing and decor. And then in the corner, is an enslaved man.

“He’s literally marginalized,” Rothman said. “Almost as if he blends into the drapes.”

It was not uncommon for slaves to be included as status markers in portraiture, Rothman added. 

“He’s part of the fashionability of the Washington family,” he said.

And Rothman, whose research has been cited in a call for reparations by descendants of slaves once owned by Georgetown, sympathizes with trying to make history relevant, especially to young people.

“It’s a funny tweet,” he said, referring to the one by CW.

But with the way it was cropped, it spotlights a tendency to exclude slavery from historical narrative, he added.

“To me, it was like a perfect teaching moment,” he said. “How do we frame history?”

Asked to comment about the tweet, a CW spokesperson provided a statement by email.

“Colonial Williamsburg’s mission is to educate Americans on the full scope of 18th-century American history—the good and the bad, the serious and the entertaining,” wrote Joseph Straw, public relations manager for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “We are particularly proud to tell the story of African-American history year-round through our robust interpretation and programing, including ongoing special events to commemorate Black History Month, as we have done for decades. We invite and welcome our neighbors, travelling guests and scholars alike to join us and experience them in-person.”

Among academics on Twitter, Rothman was not alone in responding to CW’s tweet.

“Think something [is] more important than celebrating fashion of slaveholders/the subordination of women?” tweeted Malinda S. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Alberta.

This is not an easy conversation, Rothman added, but it is an important one.

“It gets serious pretty quickly,” he said.