Elizabeth Keckly Before Mary Lincoln

8:19 AM

February is Black History Month! To celebrate here on The Fashion Historian, I asked my dear friend and colleague Elizabeth Way if she would pen a couple of guest posts about two incredible African American fashion designers and dressmakers and she kindly agreed. Enjoy!

Elizabeth Keckly in the 1860s. Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Elizabeth Keckly, the talented dressmaker and close friend to Mary Todd Lincoln, is resurfacing as an important historical figure. She appeared as a character in the film Lincoln (2012), played by Gloria Rubin, and her life has been the subject of several fictional and nonfictional books. This attention is well deserved because she was truly a remarkable woman—over the course of her life she bought her freedom from slavery, made a major impact on American fashion by dressing the most famous political wives of Civil War-era Washington DC, created a charity to aid newly freed slaves, and wrote her memoirs, leaving important documentation on both herself and the Lincoln family for future scholars. Though her experiences in Washington DC are fascinating history—she created fashions for every notable lady from Varina Davis, the first lady of the Confederacy, to all of Lincoln’s cabinet member wives—her story as a society dressmaker began on the western frontier.

Elizabeth was born a slave on the Burwell plantation in Dinwiddie County, Virginia in 1818. Her mother was Agnes, also a slave and the head seamstress and dressmaker to the Burwell family. Her father was Armistead Burwell, Agnes’ owner and the master of the plantation. Agnes taught her daughter not only to sew and make dresses, but also to read and write, empowering Elizabeth with valuable skills for her future. Elizabeth moved several times in her enslaved life because her father lent her out as help to her half-siblings. After living in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where she was raped by a white man and gave birth to her son George, and Petersburg, Virginia, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1847 as a slave to her half-sister, Anne Burwell Garland and her husband Hugh Garland.

Keckly designed this silk velvet and satin gown for Mary Lincoln in 1864. National Museum of American History, Political Life Division.

Hugh Garland was a lawyer, and the family was socially well connected, but he suffered from very poor finances. He sent Elizabeth out as a dressmaker to support the family and for two years and five months she worked as the main breadwinner supporting seventeen people! Elizabeth had gained her first experience sewing gowns for her Burwell half-sisters and was quite accomplished by the time she moved to St. Louis. However, the ladies in this city truly prepared her for the success she found in Washington. They demanded the latest French fashions, which they read about in magazines or picked up from visits and friends in New Orleans. These lady patrons, who refused to give up looking fashionable just because they lived in far-flung St. Louis, sharpened Elizabeth’s dressmaking skills and refined sense of style.

Elizabeth was intelligent, talented and an excellent businesswoman; in her own words, “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.” Therefore, it is no surprise that this black female slave, who could support a family better than a formally-educated white man, would want to move beyond the limitations of slavery. Elizabeth repeatedly asked Hugh Garland to set a price for her and George’s freedom, which he finally did: $1200. This was an enormous amount of money, especially considering that most of her wages went to the Garlands. But the always-enterprising Elizabeth had a plan. She would travel to New York City and seek financial aid from one of the abolitionist organizations that helped slaves purchase their freedom. By this time Hugh Garland had died and Anne Garland agreed to let Elizabeth travel north, but only after acquiring the signatures of six white men who would pay her value to Anne if she never returned. Elizabeth had no problem obtaining these pledges because her clients and their husbands knew her as honest and trustworthy. The sixth man, however, spoiled her plans. This Mr. Farrow would willingly sign for her, but was convinced that she would never come back to St. Louis telling her, “you mean to come back, that is, you mean so now, but you never will. When you reach New York the abolitionists will tell you what savages we are, and they will prevail on you to stay there; and we shall never see you again.” Elizabeth was morally shocked that Mr. Farrow thought she was lying and called off her trip, explaining, “I was beginning to feel sick at heart, for I could not accept the signature of this man when he had no faith in my pledges. No; slavery, eternal slavery rather than be regarded with distrust by those whose respect I esteemed.”

Keckly's Deed of Emancipation and Freedom Bond, 1855. Missouri Historical Society.

In her darkest hour, Elizabeth was saved by the reputation she had earned and the loyalty she inspired, not simply as an excellent dressmaker, but as an admirable and respected person. A client, Mrs. Le Bourgois, came to visit and told Elizabeth that her patrons did not want her to go to New York and beg for money for her freedom. Instead Mrs. Le Bourgois raised the $1200 among Elizabeth’s clients, gifting her with the money. In 1855 Elizabeth bought her and George’s freedom and she started her own business as a free dressmaker in St. Louis. She repaid every penny given to her by her patrons and in 1860 Elizabeth Keckly arrived in Washington DC, beginning her illustrious career as the leading dressmaker in the nation’s capitol.

Further Reading

Keckly, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Fours Years in the White House. New York: G.W. Carlton and Co. Publishers, 1868.

Elizabeth Way, Curatorial Assistant at the Museum at FIT. Elizabeth wrote her master's thesis on the African American dressmakers Elizabeth Keckly and Ann Lowe and continues to research the intersection of African American culture and fashion.

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