Elizabeth Keckley: Freed Slave, Activist and Dressmaker

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Olivia Terry, BA Fashion and Dress History, reflects on the ways that histories are written and rewritten, using a little-remembered African American dressmaker as her case study. 

Grand, structured, and sophisticated: these three words describe a dress made for America’s sixteenth First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln [1818-1882]. Made from sumptuous royal purple and ultramarine blue velvet, according to the Smithsonian Museum, the dress was quite fashionable for the winter social season of 1861-1862 (see Figure 1).

Fig.1: Elizabeth Keckley. Mary Lincoln’s Dress. c.1861-1862. Purple velvet and satin. 152.4 cm x 121.92 cm. The National Museum of American History.

Consistent with the sloped shoulder fashion trend of the 1860s, the neckline is a subtle scoop, and the accompanying jacket is splendidly decorated with seven square mother-of pearl buttons. It also has an interesting asymmetrical attribute to the sleeves where one is of the purple velvet, while the other is ultramarine with a flounce of the opposite colour attached (see Figure 2). Contrasting white satin piping unifies and enforces clean, structured lines throughout.

Fig. 2: Elizabeth Keckley. Mary Lincoln’ s Dress. c.1861-1862. Purple velvet and satin. 152.4 cm x 121.92 cm. The National Museum of American History.

This dress clearly has value. Of course, the luxuriousness of the material, its fashionable nature, and the status of its original wearer are all indicators of its obvious worth; but perhaps the most significant attribute of this dress is its lesser-known creator. Born into slavery in 1818 and with no formal training, Elizabeth Keckley defied social barriers by stitching this gown (see Figure 3).

I discovered Elizabeth Keckley [1818-1907], when I was asked to write and present on a member of the African Diaspora who made a key contribution to art and design for Elli Michaela Young’s L4 module, Fashion, Identity, and the African Diaspora. I struggled for a while, knowing I wanted to gear my research towards America, but eventually I remembered a book my sewing instructor had mentioned in passing, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini. After I had done some research, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard more about Keckley. Bold and resilient in character, Keckley was able to cultivate excellent skills in dressmaking and networking, leading to her purchasing her and her son’s freedom in 1855. Not long after, she became one of the most dominant dressmakers in Washington D.C.

Fig. 3: Unknown. Elizabeth Keckley, detail from front-piece of Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. 1868. Illustration. Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

As researchers such as Kate J. Armstrong have argued, she shaped American fashion by dressing the times most prominent women, most notably, Mary Todd Lincoln and Confederate First Lady, Varina Davis. In 1862, she used her elevated position with the Lincolns to gain a prominent role among the capital’s free black community by founding and presiding over the Contraband Relief Association. The organization provided housing, clothing, medical care and other necessities to impoverished newly freed slaves in the North. She also wrote an autobiography titled Behind the Scenes in 1868, detailing her early life as a slave, the growth of her business, and her professional life in the White House.

Keckley’s life is obviously significant, yet despite this I found it difficult to find new information about Keckley after I familiarized myself with the basics. Most of the information is only known from her autobiography, and many of the articles I found merely brushed over her difficult early life as a slave, skipping to her famous friendship with Mrs. Lincoln. I was well into my research before I discovered Keckley’s role as an activist and while many sources talked about her career as a modiste, very few academic sources emphasized her contributions to American fashion in the 1860s, or her own personal design style.

What I learned from my research is that while, in the last ten years, scholars, curators and journalists are beginning to pay more attention to Keckley, much of the work still fails to recognise her independent accomplishments. Evidence of this can be seen simply by looking at the title of Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, where Mary Lincoln’s name supersedes Keckley’s own. If it wasn’t for Keckley’s close relationship with Lincoln, Keckley’s story may have been lost to history forever. This is a testament to the prioritization of white history in media and museums, telling the story of Lincoln, who happened to have a freed slave for a friend, rather than focusing the story solely on Keckley, who accomplished much more outside of her relationship with Mary.

Keckley lived a revolutionary life, hardly recognized for its extraordinary nature. Dressing the time’s most prominent women, and her reputation for fit, made her the premier dressmaker of the day. It also gave her the power to influence American fashion of the 1860s. It is her surviving dresses that are perhaps the truest testament to her character; understated but undeniably smart.

Bibliography

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co. Publishers.1868. Print.

“Mary Lincoln’s Dress.” The National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian. N.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2019. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1359703

Williams, J. “A Strong Thread in a Torn Union,” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 4 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/books/its-elizabeth-keckleys-year-in-civil-war-history.html

“We Shall Overcome: Elizabeth Keckley & Harriet Tubman,” The Exploress. Dir. Kate J. Armstrong. The Exploress Podcast, 9 Nov. 2018. Podcast.

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