My daughter Maya arrived in town the other day to attend and possibly participate in the currency that vibrates with Fashion Week. An artist and fashion designer based in Miami, she often makes this annual pilgrimage, where women of her color and caliber are as a scarce as Black female directors in Hollywood.
If African-American fashion designers are a rarity, they can find hope and inspiration from dressmakers of the past, none more consequential than Ann Lowe, who designed Jackie Kennedy’s inauguration gown, or Elizabeth Keckley, whose skills were retained by Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife. There was a time when Lois Alexander Lane—who died in 2007 at 91 and one day will get her own profile here—had her Harlem Institute of Fashion on 126th Street. I think I recall seeing Lowe’s original gown there along with facsimiles of the ones Keckley designed for Lincoln.
Since, of the two, Keckley is the most removed from our memories—and mine may be a bit faulty, too—let’s review some of her achievements with needle and thread, as well as a writer.
She was born in servitude in Dinwiddie, Va., and, appropriately, in February 1818, which made her about a year older than Frederick Douglass. From her memoir, we learn that a deathbed confession by her mother revealed that her father was in fact her master, Col. Armistead Burwell or Barnwell, depending on the source.
Many young slaves, fathered by the master, were passed on to his “legitimate” children as playmates or servants. Such was the fate of Keckley, who was tethered, more or less, to her master’s son. There is some debate as to whether he was the father of her son or it was another white man in 1839. In any case, by now she was living in St. Louis with one of her master’s daughters.
It was here that she married James Keckley, but they soon divorced and she began to pursue in earnest a livelihood of dressmaking. Within a few years, her reputation spread with such success that she earned enough money, $1,200, to purchase her freedom in 1855, when she was 37. Five years later, now living in the nation’s capital, Keckley had her own business and such notables as the wives of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stephen Douglass as clients, which meant she operated on both sides of the political divide. But it was getting Lincoln as a client that greatly expanded her reputation and enhanced her business.
In her memoir, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House,” Keckley vividly captures the mood of the day as the Civil War progressed. “In the summer of 1862, freedmen began to flock into Washington from Maryland and Virginia,” she wrote. “They came with a great hope in their hearts and with all their worldly goods on their backs. Fresh from the bonds of slavery, fresh from the benighted regions of the plantation, they came to the Capital looking for liberty, and many of them not knowing it when they found it.”
Keckley clearly was not disillusioned by the relative freedom, or overly optimistic about her prospects after the war. But it was during this same year that she traveled to New York City with Lincoln and acquired even more wealthy customers.
In a long interview in Smithsonian, Elizabeth Way, an expert on Keckley’s life and style, discussed her style and the extent to which any of her gowns are available today.
“Not that many still exist actually,” she said of Keckley’s creations. “And even with those pieces that do exist, there’s a question as to whether they can be attributed to Keckley. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a Mary Lincoln gown, a purple velvet dress with two bodices that the first lady wore during the second presidential inauguration.” The difficulty in identifying the gowns or dresses as Keckely’s handiwork is that the garments were not tagged or labeled as they are today.
When a Keckley gown or dress was clearly one of her own, her style was very pared down and sophisticated, something rarely imagined during the Victorian era, Way explained. “Her designs tended to be very streamlined. Not a lot of lace or ribbon. A very clean design.”
Way also discussed Keckley’s business practice, noting that she was incredibly successful and comported herself with grace and elegance. “She was not gaudy or showy, but more pared down and refined … upright and appropriate—the Victorian ideal.” Moreover, judging by some of the photos of her, she was attractive and a mulatto.
Some of the wealth she earned—mainly from her dresses that averaged $100 each and the commissions she garnered as a seamstress for several manufacturers—can be seen on the dresses she wore and obviously ones she designed for herself.
She must have been quite a sight at President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, standing not too far from Mary Todd Lincoln, who probably wore one of Keckley’s originals, commanding as many eyeballs as those glued on Keckley.
In the succeeding days after Lincoln’s second inauguration, Keckley recounted some of the happenings at the White House, particularly those days foreshadowing his assassination. “Frequent letters were received warning Mr. Lincoln of assassination,” she wrote, “but he never gave a second thought to the mysterious warnings. The letters, however, sorely troubled his wife. She seemed to read impending danger in every rustling leaf, in every whisper in the wind.”
Furthermore, as that impending doom neared, Keckley captured that moment when Lincoln dismissed the notion that his life was in danger. “All imagination,” Keckley described his reaction to his wife’s concerns about the threats. “What does anyone want to harm me for? Don’t worry about me … as if I were a little child, for no one is going to molest me.”
After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Keckley recalled him saying, “None of us are perfect, for which reason we should heed the voice of charity when it whispers in our ears, ‘Do not magnify the imperfections of others” she wrote, “Mr. Lincoln was generous by nature, and though his whole heart was in the war, he could not but respect the valor of those opposed to him. His soul was too great for the narrow, selfish views of partisanship. Brave by nature himself, he honored bravery in others, even his foes.”
Keckley’s son demonstrated bravery and sacrificed his life for freedom as a Union soldier during the war. But her mourning was short-lived and muted with the death of Lincoln’s son during a wave of typhoid fever. She would provide the same comfort and care to Lincoln after her husband’s assassination.
Keckley’s memoir, which she published with the aim of countering all the negative reports about Mary Todd Lincoln, backfired, and Lincoln took umbrage with the private disclosures and sourly ended her long relationship with her dressmaker and confidant.
An additional sad, unintended consequence of the memoir was losing many of the wealthy clients referred to her by Lincoln. On the verge of poverty, she accepted a teaching position in the sewing and domestic science arts department at Wilberforce, a historically Black college and university in Ohio. But by 1893, her deteriorating health made it difficult for her to maintain her schedule there, and she was forced to resign.
Keckley died impoverished in the spring of 1907 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C. “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker,” a play written by Jennifer Chiaverini two years ago, has given Keckley a fresh round of remembrance, and if some semblance of Lane’s House of Fashion still exists, it provides an option to whatever Keckley dresses are at the Smithsonian.