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John and Jacqueline Kennedy pose on a grassy lawn on their wedding day, her white gown flowing behind her
Designer Ann Lowe designed this wedding dress for Jacqueline Kennedy. Photo: Toni Frissell. Prints and Photographs Division.

Black Dressmakers for First Ladies

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This story also appears in the January-February 2024 issue of the LIbrary of Congress Magazine.

Two Black seamstresses have left their mark on White House fashion history, as Elizabeth Keckley and Ann Lowe designed dresses for two of the nation’s most famous first ladies, Mary Todd Lincoln and Jacqueline Kennedy, respectively.

Both designers developed their craft despite the brutal influences of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Keckley (also spelled Keckly) was born into slavery in 1818 in rural Virginia until buying freedom for herself and her son in her mid-30s. Lowe, born in 1898 in Alabama, learned from her grandmother, who was born into slavery, and her mother, who ran the family’s dress shop.

Both women designed for famous women other than first ladies. Keckley, just a few years out of slavery, made custom dresses for, ironically, Varina Davis, wife of U.S. Sen. Jefferson Davis from Mississippi, the future president of the Confederacy. Lowe, nearly a century later, designed couture for the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts and other high-society names.

Both also left an indelible mark on how their most famous clients are remembered.

Black and white photo of a well dress woman seated, her right forearm rested on the cushioned edge of a couch, looking to her right.
Elizabeth Keckley, 1870. Photo: Unknown. Wikimedia commons.

Keckley is remembered by historians today not so much as a groundbreaking fashion designer but as an activist (she was a co-founder of the Contraband Relief Association) and the author of “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” her memoir of her close friendship with the emotionally volatile first lady. She was such a regular part of the Lincoln family’s domestic life that she combed Abraham Lincoln’s hair before his public appearances. He addressed her as “Madam Elizabeth.”

An excerpt from after Lincoln’s assassination:

“Returning to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, I found her in a new paroxysm of grief. Robert was bending over his mother with tender affection, and little Tad was crouched at the foot of the bed with a world of agony in his young face. I shall never forget the scene — the wails of a broken heart, the unearthly shrieks, the terrible convulsions, the wild, tempestuous outbursts of grief from the soul.”

The memoir was such an outrage at the time — viewed as a shocking breach of privacy, though it had been a well-intentioned effort to gain sympathy for Lincoln — that it was withdrawn from circulation almost immediately. (The Library has a copy.) Lincoln never spoke to her again. Her career and health slowly declined and she spent her last years in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, which had been founded by her relief association. She died in 1907.

A purple velvet skirt and daytime bodice are belie American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly. The first lady wore the gown during the Washington winter social season in 1861–62. Both pieces are piped with white satin, and the bodice is trimmed with mother-of pearl buttons
Mary Todd Lincoln wore this purple velvet skirt and daytime bodice for the social season of 1861-62. It is believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley. Smithsonian National Musuem of American History.

But the book had a second life for historians and writers, including George Saunders, winner of the Library’s 2023 Prize for American Fiction. Saunders drew on Keckley’s details of the Lincoln’s grief after the death of their 11-year-old son, Willie, in “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which won the Man Booker Prize.

“I don’t think (the book) would exist, if I hadn’t read her memoir,” Saunders told the New York Times in 2018.

By contrast, Lowe only made one dress for Jacqueline Kennedy, but it was a stunner: Her wedding dress for her 1953 marriage to John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator. That storybook wedding was perhaps the cornerstone of the Camelot myth of the Kennedy administration, and Lowe’s dress was a central character in that foundational event.

Vanity Fair, describing the dress earlier this year:

“The pristine pleating on the gown’s bodice, intricate scallop pin tucks, and complex rosette embellishments with dainty wax orange blossoms nestled in the center — all meticulously done by hand — are trademarks of Lowe.”

The future first lady wasn’t a fan of the dress — she had wanted a French designer — and only told reporters that it was made by a “colored dressmaker.”

Lowe was not deterred. Her career in New York high fashion flourished. In 1965, she told television talk-show host Mike Douglas that the sole point of her career, from her roots in the violent racism of 19th-century Alabama to the civil rights movement, had been “to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Thank you for this article. Wondered where the National Home for Destitute Colored Women & Children was — in DC? And if so, do you know where in the city? And where is Miss Keckley buried? Thank you.

    • Hi,

      Try our online Ask a Librarian service for this (and other) questions. The local history and genealogy section might be the best place to start: https://ask.loc.gov/genealogy-local-history/

      Best,
      Neely

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