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African American Fashion Designers – from the Lincolns to the Kennedys and Beyond

This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. Sophia is starting the MLIS program at the  University of Pittsburgh Online, Fall 2020. This is another in a series looking African Americans in business and the sciences.

Dress shop which caters to Negroes. 47th Street, Chicago, IL. Russell Lee, 1941
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Although centuries separate the lives of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Ann Lowe, and Daniel Day, also known as Dapper Dan, they have one thing in common: a love and passion for designing and sewing clothes, as well as the perseverance and grit to succeed. On slave plantations in the United States, slave seamstresses played an important role. “Some owners issued fabric, expecting the slaves to cut and sew their own clothing; some plantation mistresses cut out or supervised the cutting out of garments from plantation-made or purchased cloth, to be made up by slave seamstresses or by the mistress and her daughters; and sometimes ready-made garments or pre-cut garment pieces were imported from northern manufacturers.

In this blog post, I will briefly highlight two African American seamstresses who paved the way for Blacks in the fashion industry today, beginning with Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley.

Mrs. Lincoln taken by Matthew Brady, 1861.
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Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, February 1818 – May 1907 

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born into slavery in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. Elizabeth suffered many abuses at the hands of her slave masters, including beatings and a sexual assault. When Elizabeth moved to St. Louis with her slave mistress, she became a seamstress and dressmaker. In 1855, Elizabeth purchased her and her son’s freedom for $1200. Five years later, in 1860, she made the life-changing decision to move to Washington, D.C. to open a dressmaking shop. In her role as a dressmaker, Elizabeth served powerful and wealthy clients, many of whom were married to influential politicians. Her most famous client was none other than Mary Todd Lincoln, whom Elizabeth became extremely close to during the First Lady’s tenure in the White House.

Elizabeth went on to write a memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, becoming one of only a handful of African American women to publish books during the nineteenth century. However, the public and publishing world didn’t receive the memoir well, and it was pulled from bookstores almost immediately after its publication. In addition to writing about her own life, Elizabeth included correspondence from Mrs. Lincoln to Keckley in the memoir’s appendix.

Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy on Sept. 12, 1953. Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress was designed by Ann Lowe of New York. Photograph: Toni Frissell.
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Ann Lowe, December 14, 1898 – February 25, 1981

Born in 1898, Ann Lowe’s mother and grandmother, who was born into slavery, passed on their talent and knowledge in sewing and seamstressing to Ann. Perhaps most well-known for designing Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, Ann designed creations for numerous elite families, including the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, the du Ponts, the Whitneys, the Posts, the Bouviers and the Auchinclosses. As with Elizabeth Keckley, Ann had clientele with powerful political connections. At only age sixteen, Ann completed a commission for the First Lady of Alabama, a project that had her create and sew four ball gowns.

After completing a diploma at S.T. Taylor Design School in New York, Lowe opened her own store, Ann Lowe’s Gowns, in Harlem. Although Ann designed for some of the most well-known and influential women of the time, she was known as “Society’s Best Kept Secret” and despite her success, she declared bankruptcy in 1963. “Too late, I realized that dresses I sold for $300 were costing me $450,” Lowe once noted.

The participation of African Americans in fashion continues today. There are many African Americans active in the fashion world from more well-known names like Stephen Burrows, Dapper Dan, and Kayne West, to emerging designers like Cushnie, Christopher John Rodgers, and many more.

To learn more about Elizabeth Keckley, Ann Lowe, or the history of African American dressmaking,

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