Fashion School: Elizabeth Keckley

Rooftop Elizabeth-keckley

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley February 1818 – May 1907 was a former slave who became a successful seamstress, civic activist and author in Washington, DC. She was best known as the personal modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady. Keckley had moved to Washington in 1860 after buying her freedom and that of her son in St. Louis. She created an independent business in the capital based on clients who were the wives of the government elite. Among them were Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis; and Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee.

Mary Lincoln in ELizabeth Keckley Dress
Mary Lincoln in ELizabeth Keckley Dress

After the American Civil War, Keckley wrote and published an autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868). It was both a slave narrative and a portrait of the First Family, especially Mary Todd Lincoln, and considered controversial for breaking privacy about them. It was also her claim as a businesswoman to be part of the new mixed-race, educated middle-class that were visible among the leadership of the black community.

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During the Lincoln administration (and many years afterward), Keckley was the sole designer and creator of Mary Todd Lincoln’s event wardrobe. In January 1862, Mrs. Lincoln went for photos to Brady’s Washington Photography Studio, where she had images taken while wearing two of Keckley’s gowns. For several years to come, she wore Keckley’s dresses to many official events and had more portraits taken while wearing her work. Keckley’s relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, the President’s wife, was notable for its personal quality and intimacy, as well as its endurance over time.

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