Elizabeth Keckley: Freed Slave, Activist and Dressmaker

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.


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.

Exhibiting Research: Report from a PhD training workshop

Harriet Parry reflects on a training event for PhD students on the subject of turning research into exhibitions.

Head-down and up to your eyeballs in a research project, it is easy to lose focus of a key scholarly requirement. As well as furthering knowledge in your chosen field, it is also important to share that knowledge beyond the academic bubble. Therefore, the Techne / Centre for Design History one day workshop in November 2019 – ‘Displaying your Research: Pitching Exhibitions to Cultural Organisations’ – was a timely and enlightening opportunity to think not only about what and who to exhibit with, but also to think in new ways about how to connect with diverse audiences.

Through presentations made by academics and curators, whose experience of exhibition included formal display as well as active co-creation and ongoing evolution of community access, these always collaborative projects highlighted the pragmatics and the politics of displaying research. What happens to research when it moves from the printed page to the votive power of the display cabinet? Who owns the work that is displayed? Who is it for and how do they know it is for them? Can collaboration through exhibition create connections that would not otherwise be made? And what can an exhibition generate that a thesis on a book case can never achieve?

As organiser Dr. Claire Wintle outlined, working collaboratively with an institution to create an exhibit can be slow and may cause creative conflict. If, in its essence, it is the right piece of research pitched to the right organisation, it can also provide a constellation of benefits. According to the curatorial and research professionals speaking on the day, identifying how your work relates to the organisation selected is the primary requirement before approaching them with an idea. You might have already built a relationship with the collaborating organisation – as PhD researcher and presenter Joseph Long has with the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea – or it might be a relationship that you will build from scratch. Senior Research Fellow and Design Archives leader, Sue Breakell, advised that what you want to do must fit with the cultural organisation’s objectives and fill a gap.  Think too about what an exhibition could actually be: could it be a collection of events rather than a singular exhibit? All these questions and more must be considered before making any connections.

Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred, exhibition view, Whitechapel Gallery, October 2015. Photograph by Dan Weill.

As an example of the way an organisation prioritises what they exhibit, Dr Nayia Yiakoumaki, curator of the Archive Gallery at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London, explained that their aim is to unearth histories that have not yet registered in the canon of art. One history that did just that was the work Dr Annebella Pollen brought to their attention when accessing their archive as part of her research. Dr Yiakoumaki explained that this collaboration opened up part of their own history that they had been unaware of. Dr Pollen explained that the ensuing exhibition Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred, took several years to organise and was a steep learning curve in many ways. But the results meant that not only were new connections made within the archive but new and different audiences were attracted to the gallery. The exhibition also created new connections in her own work through audience engagement that she couldn’t have anticipated.

A thought-provoking morning of presentations ended with Dr Louise Purbrick sharing her extensive experience of collaborating with communities through museums and exhibitions. Her work advocates a ‘long-slow-collaborative dialogue’ that emphasises work in collaboration rather than as its output. By conducting this research through exhibition spaces, her aim is to legitimise and provide a platform for the work that these collaborations create. Provocatively she asked: could it be that academic impact is no longer the main impact that we are looking for?

PhD students in the afternoon hands-on workshop.

Full of the ideas and possibilities of how we might exhibit our research, in the afternoon session, Dr Nicola Ashmore, who has worked extensively in arts and museum practices, held a workshop to help us pull together our ideas. With such diverse ways of thinking about the value of research and the ways it might be curated, it was unsurprising that our discussions explored tension and contentions on the purpose and ethics behind exhibitions. In particular, we questioned the role exhibition spaces play in society, what should and shouldn’t be included, and who has the right to curate culture and present it as knowledge.

Although it was daunting to balance pragmatics, ethics and concepts of culture in our minds, the day underlined that the way in which our research might be presented is not a one-size-fits-all endeavour. Importantly, we do not own the objects and subjects of our research, but are part of a moment in their social life that can continue; our research can find further meaning that we may never come to know if we do not share it.

Misbehaving Bodies at the Wellcome Collection

Josie Stewart, BA Fashion and Dress History, reflects on an important exhibition at Wellcome Collection, London.

The Wellcome Collection in London is a space that combines science and art through thought-provoking exhibitions that challenge the discourse on health. A current display, ‘Misbehaving Bodies’, creates a conversation between the artists Jo Spence (1934-1992) and Oreet Ashery (b.1966) concerning the representation and understanding of chronic illness by raising complex questions surrounding how it shapes identity. Through Spence’s photography and Ashery’s films, the artists offer a layered narrative from a patient’s perspective and gives individuals living and dying from illness the reclamation of agency that is so often taken away during periods of ill health.

Fig.1: ‘Misbehaving Bodies’ at the Wellcome Collection. Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

The exhibition space itself differs from the stark, bleached image of the medical world and it is also a far cry from the more ‘palatable’ public images of illness that tend to not show its full reality, such as scars and bodily functions, particularly when it comes to women’s health.

Spence’s photographs, which cover most of the gallery walls, confront both the physical and mental effects of her breast cancer diagnosis in 1982. Previously a family portrait photographer, Spence observed how her subjects composed façades in front of the camera. She examined these ideas further in ‘Beyond the Family Album’ (1979) (Fig.2) that referenced her mother’s unpaid domestic labour, financial struggles and her parents old age and subsequent failing bodies. Noticing that she had concealed her own unhappy childhood behind a smiling face in early photographs, Spence decided to document her lived experience of cancer treatment in what she termed ‘phototherapy.’

Fig.2: Excerpt from ‘Beyond the Family Album’ (1979.) Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

Spence’s pre- and post-surgery body feature in a series of self-portraits entitled ‘The Picture of Health?’ (1982-86) (Fig.3). This series addressed her feelings surrounding the trauma of illness and her attempts to reclaim her body, which she felt had been taken over by doctors and western medical intervention. The images are raw, showing Spence at what could be considered her at her most vulnerable. Instead they are powerful and arresting and not without a sense of humour and irony. Spence displays her naked post-op body alongside photos of glamour models, which could also be interpreted as a play between ‘inspiration porn’ and pornography.

Fig.3: Excerpt from ‘A Picture of Health’ (1982-86.) Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

Feelings of disempowerment and infantilization are also expressed in Spence’s photos. There is an anti-elitist theme to Spence’s work, as the idea that socioeconomics contributed to her illness and that illness in turn exacerbates those existing struggles is suggested. The text accompanying the images was enlarged and laminated in order to make them accessible to the people that Spence believed were also affected by these issues.

Ashery’s film, ‘Revisiting Genesis’ (2016), also explores socioeconomic factors of illness in terms of how capitalism benefits from our fear of death, of being forgotten and our fear of losing creative control. The idea of film and video influencing the memory of the dead is also discussed. The fictional artist ‘Genesis’ is not actually seen but encapsulates elements of Dora Goldine, Amy Winehouse and Ashery herself, all London-based, female artists of Jewish descent. The film features people with life-limiting illnesses themselves, including artist Martin O’Brien who themes his own performance art around living with cystic fibrosis. It blurs fact and fiction, with the script being based on real interviews conducted with palliative care nurses and their patients discussing digital wills, cremation jewellery and augmented tombstones, all of which are currently viable options. The absurdity of even death being inescapable from capitalism is highlighted through the characters names and appearances, making the film seem somewhat surreal.

Fig.4: Still of ‘Revisiting Genesis’ featuring Martin O’Brien showing in ‘Misbehaving Bodies.’ Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

The viewing space is an important part of the exhibition experience, with visitors sitting on giant teddy bears within an area draped with pink fabric (Fig.4.) Crucially, the shade of pink is a far cry from the sugary sweet hue usually associated with women’s health charities. It instead evokes the inside of a body, which causes discomfort yet at the same time the space feels safe and intimate, intended to allow the viewer to be vulnerable to contemplate subjects such as illness and death. It represents the themes covered in the exhibition, the openness of discussing these topics in an uncompromising way that breaks away from the clichés of ‘courageous battles’ and allows us to be more comfortable with the realities of living and dying with ‘misbehaving bodies.’ The exhibition provides a lot to take in but viewing these issues from an artistic female approach feels more important than ever in the current climate.

‘Misbehaving Bodies’ is on at the Wellcome Collection until 26th January 2020. ‘Revisiting Genesis’ can be viewed online at http://revisitinggenesis.net/.

Designer Christmas Trees at Claridge’s Hotel

BA History of Art and Design student, Sarahlouise Newman, attended the public unveiling of the 2019 Claridge’s Christmas tree, and provides a short history of the festive project.

Since 2009 Claridge’s Hotel based in the wealthy district of Mayfair has been showcasing a designer Christmas tree. The concept was to bring tourists and fashion fans into the well-known hotel which is a favorite of the royal family. It started in 2009 with John Galliano for Dior; Galliano had been in residence at the hotel and came up with the idea of a tree for the Art Deco hallway. His take on the traditional Christmas tree was a magical-realism idea with a nod to the Brothers Grimm. According to Claridge’s, Galliano ‘evoked a frozen twist on tradition with a tropical tree completed with snow leopard, dragonflies and parrots, echoing Claridge’s Art Deco surroundings’.

Claridge’s tree, 2009.

Galliano secured a second year in 2010 with an under-the-sea themed tree, more whimsical in design. The following year Galliano was replaced by Alber Elbaz for Lavin who turned Galliano’s whimsical concept in for something far more playful and childlike, topped with a small figurine of himself.

Claridge’s tree, 2011.


In 2012 Kally Ellis (founder of British floristry designers, McQueens) changed the concept of the tree yet again, naming her creation ‘Forest Murmurs’, giving it a more of a naturalistic, contemporary twist. Claridge’s stated, ‘The Christmas tree featured magnolia branches and lichen moss, studded with crystal and emerald jewel eggs in white, gold and silver.’ This has been rumored to be a memorial tree for fashion designer Alexander McQueen who passed away in 2010 and was also a fan of Claridge’s.

In stark contrast to Ellis’s tree, Dolce and Gabbana took the helm next. With signature Italian flair, theirs was a seven metre high tree with a nostalgic nod to tradition. Claridge’s stated that the tree was adorned with more than 450 hand-blown Italian festive glass baubles and a bespoke ‘luminaire’ framework, with the base of the tree featuring 30 hand-crafted Sicilian marionettes known as Pupi.

Claridge’s tree, 2012.

The 2015 concept was a modern piece by Christopher Bailey for Burberry. Claridge’s explained that the tree ‘featured over 100 umbrellas, each finished in bespoke gold and silver metallic fabric, and thousands of motion-sensor lights, programmed to sparkle and glitter as guests walked by the tree.’ The concept exemplified the breadth of the brief, showcasing something both futuristic and surreal with its hint of Duchamp. It was, in fact, not even a tree at all.

Claridge’s tree, 2013.

2017’s tree turned the concept of a Christmas tree on its head, literally. A personal favourite of mine, the Karl Lagerfeld tree was a sixteen foot inverted tree reminiscent of a silver stalactite, topped with silver gilded roots and a multi-faceted, mirrored star. Underneath, Icelandic sheepskin rugs were positioned to suggest a recent snowfall.

Claridge’s tree, 2017.

This year’s Diane von Furstenberg installation, titled ‘The Tree of Love’ will be in the Art Deco hallway until 1 January 2020.

Sarahlouise would like to thank Orla Hickley, Operations Manager at Claridge’s, for providing information about the tree and permission to use the images.