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Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Fashion Bomb Salutes Elizabeth Keckley

“I was fortunate in obtaining work, and in a short time I had acquired something of a reputation as a seamstress and dress-maker. The best ladies in St. Louis were my patrons, and when my reputation was once established I never lacked for orders.”-- Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes

Happy February!
First up for the Fashion Bomb's Black History Month Designer Series is Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), seamstress and dressmaker to many, including Varina Davis, of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Mary Todd Lincoln, of President Abraham Lincoln.

Keckley was born into slavery in Virginia. She used her superior skills as a seamstress and dressmaker to buy her freedom in 1855. As a free woman, she lived in Washington, D.C.

She sewed and tailored dresses for the daughters and ladies of the most prominent families. Her reputation mounting, she came to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln, and soon became her dressmaker.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Dress for Mrs. Lincoln by Elizabeth Keckley

Cape for Mrs. Lincoln by Elizabeth Keckley
Keckley’s soon became a confidante to Mary Todd. When Mary Todd fell under financial strain after the assassination of her husband, Keckley helped Mary Todd auction off her clothing in New York. In another attempt to generate funds for Todd as well as her, Keckley published her diaries in 1868: Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (which is a quick read if you’re interested).

Mary Todd hated on her portrayal in the book, to the point where her oldest son had it removed from publication. Because of the controversy, Keckley was ostracized and her business declined. According to the African American registry, “From 1892 to 1893, she left Washington to teach domestic science at Wilberforce University in Ohio. She returned soon after to spend the rest of her days at the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, which she had helped to establish. She died there from a stroke May 26, 1907.”

Let’s pour out a flute of champagne in memory of designer extraordinaire Elizabeth Keckley.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the Fashion Bomb’s next Black History Month installment.
PS According to an article in today’s Women’s Wear Daily, Tracy Reese

… will collaborate with Hue, a hosiery firm, for a designer collection. According to the article, “The knee-highs and tights will retail from $18-$24, and are being pitched to department stores and specialty retailers that already sell Tracy Reese.” I think I might snag a pair…finally something by Tracy Reese that I can afford!


Huey P. Langston said...

Happy Black History Month to you too Claire! I'm in all month!

Dionne said...

Love these, keep them coming.

Kimberly said...

I love this note Claire. I actually reference Keckley's work in my thesis on blacks and Abraham Lincoln. And in class today, Prof. Carpio brought her up. Happy Black History Month!


Najah said...

Very interesting, this will be a great series!

Nikky said...

Wow, I'll have to pick up that book. Lovin these installments!

rikyrah said...

A friend turned me onto your blog. I really like it, and appreciate your Black History Month lessons.