28 Days of Black Fashion History: Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth_Keckley__public_domain_Her early life reads like a novel with LOTS of drama, tragedy, trials, triumphs and an incredible amount of courage. Though she was born a slave, Elizabeth Keckley’s mother taught her to read (which was illegal) and to sew, which would become an invaluable skill that would help her buy her freedom and establish a profitable business that would take her to the White House.

Keckley was born in Virginia in 1818, but by the 1840s, she’d relocated to St. Louis, Missouri with her owners and hired out as a seamstress. Though most of her wages were kept by her owner, she managed to save $1200 to buy freedom for herself and her son, George. Several years later, after a failed marriage, she would move to DC where she would eventually meet Mary Todd Lincoln and establish a profitable dressmaking business.

Elizabeth Keckley

Keckley was indeed a skilled dressmaker, taking great pride in her work.Her style was sophisticated and streamlined, and she was known for her fit and ability to drape fabric. In her autobiography, she stated that the “best ladies in St. Louis were my patrons, and when my reputation was once established I never lacked for orders. With my needle I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.”

Christening gown made by Keckley for her goddaughter

Not only were Keckley’s dressmaking skills on point, but her excellent networking skills helped her score many of D.C.’s white elite as her clientele. They would also help her land the coveted position of Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal modiste.

A purple velvet skirt and daytime bodice believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln, worn during the Washington winter social season in 1861-1862. (National Museum of American History)

Keckley was Todd’s exclusive dressmaker and given the breadth of what she did for Mary, in today’s world, she’d be called her stylist. She would dress the first lady daily, complete with accessories, jewelry and hair styling. As time went on, Keckley would eventually become one of Mary Todd’s closest confidantes.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s striped and floral dress, attributed to Keckley, altered from the original design. (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Their friendship continued until Keckley wrote her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years as a Slave and Four Years in the White House, in part to help salvage Mary Todd’s reputation after the war.  Todd felt betrayed and cut off contact with Keckley. Although she continued her work as a dressmaker, the fallout from the book also affected her business as many of her clients distanced themselves from her.

Mary Todd Lincoln in one of Elizabeth Keckley’s gowns. 

In the late 1800’s, at the age of 74, Keckley accepted a position as the head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Ohio’s Wilberforce University, one of the country’s first Black universities. Years later, she would return to Washington and lived out the last of her years in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.

While we focus mostly on her fashion and business skills in this blog, Elizabeth Keckley’s full story is so interesting as she was instrumental in helping formerly enslaved men and women who had escaped the south during the Civil War as well as helping to get women in the workforce. I invite you to read more about this incredible woman and her life’s journey.

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