April 24, 2013
Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Virginia. Although she encountered one hardship after another, with sheer determination, a network of supporters and valuable dressmaking skills, she eventually bought her freedom from her St. Louis owners for $1,200. She made her way to Washington, D.C. in 1860 to establish her own dressmaking business and met first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
Just after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, in 1861, the FLOTUS hired Keckley (also spelled Keckly) as her personal modiste. Keckley took on the role of dressmaker, personal dresser and confidante, and the two women formed a special bond. Mary T. and Lizzy K., a new play written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, explores their relationship.
Much has been researched, written and analyzed about Keckley’s life as a result of the unusual friendship. In 1868, Keckley published a detailed account of her life in the autobiography Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. A thorough study of her dressmaking legacy is still being uncovered, though, explained Elizabeth Way, a former Smithsonian researcher and New York University costume studies graduate student who worked for the Smithsonian last summer researching Keckley.
Prompted by Mary T. and Lizzy K., which runs through May 5, 2013, at the Mead Center for American Theater at Arena Stage in Washington, Threaded spoke with Way about Keckley’s dressmaking handiwork.
Are Elizabeth Keckley designs plentiful today?
Not that many still exist actually. And even with those pieces that do exist, there’s a question as to whether they can be attributed to Keckley. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a Mary Lincoln gown, a purple velvet dress with two bodices, that the first lady wore during the second presidential inauguration. There’s a buffalo plaid green and white day dress with a cape at the Chicago History Museum. At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, you’ll find a black silk dress with a strawberry motif that you’d wear to a strawberry party, which was a 19th-century Midwestern picnic tradition, but it’s disputed as to whether or not it’s a Keckley. Penn State has a quilt that Keckley made from dress fabrics, and other items are floating around in collections. For example, Howard University has a pincushion with her name on it.
You mentioned it’s difficult to attribute clothes to Keckley. Why is that?
At the time, no labels or tags were used. And because fabric was so expensive, dresses were often taken apart and reconstructed as a completely different dress using the same material. She made clothes for many official women in Washington, so one way to determine a Keckley dress is if any of those women kept a journal and noted that kind of detail within it.
I assume she followed fashion conventions of the mid- to late 19th century, but did she have a specific style?
Her style was very pared down and sophisticated, which a lot of people don’t imagine when they think of the Victorian era. Her designs tended to be very streamlined. Not a lot of lace or ribbon. A very clean design.
How did she build such a thriving business as an African-American woman in the mid-1800s?
She was very skilled at building a client network, which was very notable considering she was a black woman and previously enslaved. She consistently made friends with the right people and got them to help her, which was not only a testament to those people, but also to her. She had incredible business savvy.
Would she sew the entire dress?
When she started out, she would do the complete dress, sew it up, add the trim, everything. As she became more successful, she was able to hire seamstresses to do some of the sewing and she trained people to help with the construction. Generally, she would work on the fit of the dresses.
Was Mary Lincoln wearing only Keckley while she was the first lady?
Mary Lincoln liked to shop. She would go to New York to shop at the department stores, which were just emerging at that time. You could buy ribbon and trim and anything unfitted, like a cape. It was just the beginning of mass production. But any kind of dress had to be made by a dressmaker because the fit was so specific that it had to be customized. Mary Lincoln was said to order 15, 16 dresses each season, which took about three months to make.
While Mary Lincoln was known, and criticized, for an overly youthful style that embraced bright colors and floral patterns, the dresses made for her by Keckley that have survived are the opposite of that style—Keckley really designed with very clean lines.
Where did Mary Lincoln, or other women for that matter, find out about fashion trends?
Fashion at this time copied France line for line. Whatever was happening at the French court was what women in D.C. wanted.
Elizabeth Keckley was an incredible businesswoman and was also known for her beauty.
In her memoir, she recalls that people thought she was beautiful. The Washington Bee, the African American newspaper, treated her like a black socialite within the African-American community. She dressed well—she was not gaudy or showy, but more pared down and refined. She was known for being elegant, upright and appropriate—the Victorian ideal.
How did that Victorian approach play into Keckley’s designs?
The Victorian ideals permeated all levels of American culture and determined what it meant to be an appropriate woman no matter who you were. There were so many social rules about what you had to wear in the daytime and nighttime, and Keckley’s garments all followed those rules, especially for Mary Lincoln, who was in the public eye so frequently.
How long would it take for Keckley to make one dress?
I’m not exactly sure. Maybe two, three weeks. To drape the fabric, cut the fabric, use a sewing machine on some parts and hand-stitch others. Also, remember—she was making multiple dresses at a time, and by the time she was a successful dressmaker in Washington, she also had seamstresses working with her.
What was Keckley most known for amongst women in Washington who wanted a dress from her?
Her fit and her adeptness when it came to draping fabric on the body. She was known to be the dressmaker in D.C. because her garments had extraordinary fit.
What were the dressmaking tools she would have been using at the time?
A rudimentary sewing machine, which is at the Chicago History Museum, pins, needles. She may have measured with inches but because that system was so new, she could have used another marking system for measurement. And she may have used a drafting system that came out in the 1820s for patternmaking.
How much was Keckley earning at the time when she was making dresses for Mary Lincoln?
When Keckley first moved to D.C. and worked as a seamstress for a dressmaker, she made $2.50 a day.
She recalls in her memoir that when she became a dressmaker, she made a dress for Anna Mason Lee who was attending a reception with the Prince of Wales in 1860, which was a very high society event in D.C. Captain Lee gave Keckley $100 to purchase lace and trim for his wife’s dress. So while that doesn’t quite speak to how much she was earning, it does put things in perspective and speak to the level of cost and the timeline of moving from a seamstress to a dressmaker. In fact, when she bought the trim from Harper Mitchell, the trim store, for Lee’s dress, the shop gave her a $25 commission for the purchase. That $25 was already ten times what she was making as a seamstress when she first came to Washington. Working as a dressmaker was the highest-paying opportunity women had during that time period, and Keckley’s dresses were known to be very expensive, the envy of women in Washington.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
March 22, 2013
If your wardrobe is seriously lacking the next time you have a red carpet event on the horizon, consider taking a trip to The Way We Wore. The vintage boutique, its proprietor Doris Raymond, and her upbeat staff are the subjects of a new series called “L.A. Frock Stars,” which premiered last week on the Smithsonian Channel. Over the course of six episodes, the docu-reality show follows Doris and members of her charismatic team as they travel from California to Texas to New York on the hunt for rare fashions to stock in her Los Angeles shop.
We’re not talking run-of-the-mill thrift store finds. From beaded floor-length gowns to ostrich feather-adorned party dresses to one-of-a-kind Christian Dior jackets, the pristine garments and accessories in the LaBrea Avenue boutique have been purchased by A-list celebrities, stylists, designers, and serious vintage clothing aficionados who trust Doris’ eye. In between traveling alongside Doris on her treasure hunting shopping marathons, the viewer is exposed to educational tidbits from her encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, a refreshing feature that distinguishes the show from its superficial, “What Not to Wear”-style reality television counterparts. We spoke with Doris to learn more about her passion for vintage.
How did you get into this line of work?
In the 1970s, I had bought a ring in the shape of a triangle with a carnelian stone and on either side of the triangle was marcasite. Someone saw it and commented, “That’s a really great Art Deco ring.” I said, “What’s Art Deco?” I went to the library and researched it, and from that research, I wanted to find out more of the context. When you get a little back story about an object, it amplifies the value and makes you appreciate it much more. So yeah, my career basically started all over a ring.
From watching the show, everything at The Way We Wore seems special – unusual, collectible, rare – and the garments have an attention to detail that we see less and less of these days. With the thousands of incredible objects you handle each year, when do pieces really stand out?
I could tell stories from the ridiculous to the sublime. Not to sound like a fashion snob, but oftentimes, the ones that blow my socks off and stick in my mind are the ones that cross the boundary from fashion into art.
One of my favorite examples is a Sonia Delaunay cloche and scarf that I bought in North Carolina about 20 years ago. Someone who had worked for me went to the State University of New York to become a curator and her first exhibition was about Sonia Delaunay. I had never heard of her until that point. The show, and her work, left quite an impression on me, especially because of Delaunay’s Cubist influences. The way she put things together was so identifiable that wouldn’t you know, six months later I’m in an antique store in North Carolina and I see this cloche and scarf and I think, “This can’t be,” but I bought it. And that began a journey of spending two years and many thousands of dollars meeting with experts on Delaunay. After two years, I received a certificate of authenticity for the cloche and scarf. I would say that was the most sublime experience.
How about something on the more ridiculous end of the spectrum?
Anything that makes me chuckle or laugh out loud is a piece that I want, either for myself or for the store. Several years ago, I was in Chicago and I bought these 1920s earmuffs and the actual ear coverings were composition faces – similar to a kewpie doll – with fur around each muff. It looked like you’re wearing heads around your head. That piece I have kept in my office.
So you’ve held onto the earmuffs, but how do you decide what to keep and what to sell?
I would say that everything from my collection is for sale because I’ve learned through the years that when you let go of something, something better will replace it. If I happen to have a client come in who is a good match for something that’s not visible in the store, I’d rather pass it on. I take on the role of foster parent. There’s nothing I can’t let go of except for my books. I keep my books because I use them for reference.
You come upon clothing that has been worn by historical figures on momentous occasions. How interested are you in the provenance of the garment?
Before I opened my store, I was a collector first. After I opened my store in L.A., I had to change my eye and my criteria for retail because 99 percent of my customers are less interested in provenance.
I recently sold two Native American garments to one of my favorite customers. A week or so after she bought it, I called her to let her know it had come from Rudolph Nureyev. The woman I got the pieces from was an extremely close friend of Nureyev’s and an executor of his estate. I thought she’d want to know. I rarely toot that horn until after it sells because I feel like the value of piece is in the garment itself, not who owned it.
Generally, it’s more widely accepted for people to wear vintage clothing these days. How have you seen the culture of vintage evolve?
There’s a reverence and respect for elements of the past regardless of the form it takes. With clothing, that appreciation has increased in the past decade because of social networks and platforms like eBay, where people began to have more exposure to the vintage clothing culture that exists. People began appreciating what was in their closets and what was in their relatives’ closets rather than just throwing everything into a dumpster, which is the way things were done in the past.
When I started wearing vintage in the late ’60s, early ’70s, my mother said, “Don’t tell people it’s used.” Buying at thrift stores was an indication that you couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. That was the case – I couldn’t afford to buy new clothing. But it wasn’t something I was embarrassed about.
Once you attach value, things change. And I think that has a lot to do with celebrity dressing, with people like Winona Ryder, Julia Roberts, and Renee Zellweger wearing vintage. It has become acceptable to wear vintage without having a stigma attached to it.
The Way We Wore boutique is on the more expensive end of the vintage clothing store spectrum with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to up to $50,000. How do you compare your shop to the thousands of other vintage shops in existence?
Unless you’ve invested time in understanding the different types of vintage, coming into a store like mine can be off-putting because every piece is curated, cleaned, repaired, and the prices reflect that. My business is for more seasoned vintage clothing shoppers who understand the value of what they’re getting.
L.A. Frock Stars airs on the Smithsonian Channel, Thursday nights at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.
October 9, 2012
By now, I’m sure Threaded readers know that I derive great satisfaction – or some might say, nerd out – uncovering the social and historical context of clothing. One of my projects, Worn Stories, does that in an even more personal way; it’s a collection of stories I edit from interesting individuals based on a piece of clothing or an accessory with a very specific memory connected to it. I recently posted a story on Worn Stories about a sprightly centenarian, Sadie Mintz, that I thought Threaded readers would enjoy so I’ve re-posted it here in its entirety.
I used to rent to the movie studios. I had a small shop that was in between two buildings, on Hollywood Blvd. It was called “The Hollywood Jewel Box.” It was really only wide enough for one person to walk into, and I stood behind a little counter at the far end. The jewelry was displayed on shelves that had been made by digging into the red brick of the buildings on either side, and I used to be so afraid that someone would see all the red dust we hosed out of the store when we made the shelves. Mary Pickford was my landlady. I would make some money at the store, in addition to what my husband Sidney earned as a wardrobe man. We would also rent our jewelry to the movie studios – back then, the studios did not have as much of their own costumes and things. We had two sons, both of whom we put through college and medical school by renting jewelry.
In one of the two bedrooms in my modest house in Hollywood, California, I had tray after tray of shallow shelves built into the wall. All the drawers were behind sliding wooden doors, so it just looked like the room had a big closet. Every tray was lined with satin or velvet, and it was full of fake jewelry! Everything you could imagine: a drawer for just emerald jewelry, one for ruby, one for multicolored stones, drawers for just earrings, ones for bangles and ones for necklaces. It was like a candy shop with every kind of color, shape and size. There was even a drawer for Indian and “native” jewelry (which my husband Sid fashioned from bones saved from our Sunday night chicken dinners).
On one occasion in the 1950s, I rented several pairs of the same rhinestone earrings. Evidently they were worn by Marilyn Monroe and several other cast members in “Some Like It Hot.” My husband and I made the earrings. We were supposed to make them with a lot of rhinestones, very noticeable. These earrings were the very same that Marilyn Monroe had on in the famous LIFE magazine photograph of her, which I always kept framed on the wall.
Years later, I sold my inventory back to the studios. I kept some things for the grandkids – I had three granddaughters, and they used to love to come play in the drawers. But I did keep those rhinestone earrings. I tried to have them sold by Christie’s or Butterfields – I don’t remember which auction house. They agreed it was the same design, but I had no proof that these were the very same earrings worn by the stars, so they could not “authenticate” them. I wonder what more information they needed since I was already in my mid-nineties and remembered everything! My eldest granddaughter even got me a clip of the video showing the earrings. These were indeed the same earrings. I ended up having them sold at auction by the Screen Actors Guild, which was more lax on the authenticity rules.
Even though I don’t own them anymore, I can still see them on my picture of Marilyn Monroe, and they remind me of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when we rented accessories and jewelry to all the stars, from Mae West (she gave me a beautiful crystal and silver decanter as a gift) to Marilyn Monroe towards the last few years of my rental business. At that time, Hollywood really was magical. The movie stars were all so glamorous, much more so than today. They sparkled like princesses, and they were so elegant. In those days, ladies had etiquette and dressed in lovely hats and, of course, jewelry. When I see that picture, I remember the Hollywood Jewel Box, and what a treasure trove it was during that Golden Age of Hollywood.
Sadie Mintz is the 105-year-old entrepreneur behind the Hollywood Jewel Box who made the earrings Marilyn Monroe wore on a 1959 LIFE Magazine cover.
(Originally published on Worn Stories.)
October 5, 2012
Until this week, I didn’t know much about how cowboys began wearing rhinestones, who invented tighty whities or why plaid was once outlawed. But I’ve since been schooled by a motley assortment of sartorial history. Because I think you’ll be as enlightened as I was, what follows is Threaded’s first blog roundup.
For starters, the bedazzled cowboy. How did we move from a rough-and-tumble John Wayne-type of masculinity that’s seeped into every western flick to rodeo wear that’s more glam than grit? We’ve got Nudie Cohn to thank.
Nudie. A distinctive name I knew I’d read before. And then I realized I’d come upon not one, but two Nudie-related garments on eBay with noteworthy provenances for my online art project Sentimental Value. Last week in an interview with Collectors Weekly, Nudie’s granddaughter, Jamie Lee Nudie, lovingly described the life of the Ukranian-born tailor who made flamboyant outfits for the likes of Johnny Cash, Dale Evans, Cher and Elvis Presley in Meet the Man Who Made Cowboys Love Rhinestones.
Collectors Weekly: How did Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors first get started?
Jamie Lee Nudie: After my grandparents settled in Hollywood in 1940, they started working in their garage using a ping-pong table as their cutting board. They originally wanted to approach Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, but thought they needed a storefront first.
Instead, my grandfather approached Tex Williams, who actually lived in Newhall, California, near my grandparents. He told Tex that he’d like to make him some clothes, but he needed $150 for a sewing machine. Tex said, “Well, I’ve got a horse we could sell at auction,” and so they did, they sold the horse and bought a sewing machine.
My grandfather took an assistant with him to do all the measurements for Tex and his band, and somehow they got to drinking. Afterwards, my grandfather made the suits and took them back to Tex, but the pants were all arm’s length and the arms were leg’s length, so they didn’t quite work. Nudie had gotten the cloth on credit, so when he returned to the fabric store to get more fabric, the owner wouldn’t give him any. So he sat up on the counter and said, “I’m not leaving here until I get my fabric.” The guy finally gave in and my grandfather went back and fixed the suits. That night Tex and his band played at the Riverside Rancho, which sold out, and Tex made enough money to actually pay my grandfather, who then paid for the fabric.
Anyway, eventually my grandfather approached Roy, and he had already heard about Nudie. It was like a domino effect—everyone important started to hear about Nudie and so he started making clothes for them. So they were able to open Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors on Victory and Vineland in North Hollywood in 1950 and then in ’63 they moved to Lankershim Boulevard, where the store stayed until it closed in 1994.
Read the full interview here.
Developed by Cooper Inc.’s Arthur Kneibler in 1934 and unveiled a year later at Marshall Fields in Chicago, the Y-fronts–called “jockeys” due to the way they mimicked the support of a jockstrap—quickly brought the party to the world’s pants: the initial order sold out, and Cooper was forced to rent a plane to handle the volume of the next shipment. The company changed its name to Jockey International, and its products have been supporting men ever since. Naturally, they’re available in a wide swath of colors and fabrics, but we stand by the crisp, honest white cotton originals. Buy them in bulk and beat the bunch.
While I can’t personally attest to the correlation between more guys wearing skinny jeans and the increasing popularity of briefs that Bureau of Trade touts, logically, it does make sense. But I do know that some men still prefer the French Legion-issued, elastic-free deadstock variety under their Thom Browne suits as Scott Bodenner described on Worn Stories.
And lastly, plaid, or tartan as it’s known in Britain: It has such a rich history that Worn Fashion Journal summarized ten fun facts about the cloth in its post A Checkered Past. My favorite revolutionary fact:
Thanks to Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Scottish clansmen, tartan was banned in 1746 after they unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the British throne. Under the Act of Proscription, authorities believed tartan was an uncontrollable force of rebellion. Luckily for Scots and the fashion world alike, tartan returned from exile in 1782.
What sartorially-edifying, historically inclined articles have you read recently that Threaded readers ought to check out? Please share your suggestions in the comments below!
September 24, 2012
“Is the knitted way of life your life?”
—The Great American Knits Fall 1965
DuPont certainly hoped so.
On a recent trip to visit my family in Delaware I dropped off my overnight bag in my childhood bedroom and found a stack of papers and books my mother had left on my bureau that belonged to my grandmother. As I sorted through the pile of 1950s barbecue how-to booklets, 1970s Valentine’s Day cards and other miscellany, I found this gem of an advertisement from the New York Times, August 29, 1965, “The Great American Knits Fall 1965.” How timely with the first fall chill in the air! Printed on newsprint, the 20-plus-page advertising supplement showcased DuPont’s newest synthetic fibers via a catalog of sweaters.
Orlon! Dacron! Antron! Following on the heels of the nylon’s invention in the late 1930s (in my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, no less!) forever changing women’s hosiery, these pseudo-space-age-sounding textiles made from DuPont fibers also transformed the way we dressed. When Orlon acrylic, Dacron polyester and Antron nylon, the branded names DuPont gave to these synthetic fibers, were first available, the company went to great lengths to target Parisian couturiers who incorporated them into their runway designs in the 1950s. Then, with marketing campaigns like this one, Orlon, Dacron and Antron hit the ready-to-wear knitwear market in the 1960s.
Touting their durability, washability, vibrant colors and remarkable textures, DuPont began manufacturing the complex materials just as the United States was preparing for its first moon landing. Along with Playtex, the company instrumental in Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, DuPont played a significant role in the Apollo project of the U.S. space program in the 1960s. Concurrently, the upcoming lunar landing inspired designers to create the space-age, op-art fashion of the times as the fashion spreads illustrate.
What I love about this multipage ad for knits—besides the heavy eye makeup, bangs, angular poses and pointy fake press-on nails —is that DuPont, whose own marketing slogan was “Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry,” realized the importance of hopping on the fashion bandwagon to hype its own scientific discoveries. Including apparel brands like Melloknit, Sweetree and Crazy Horse, the ad declares, “Some women have made collecting knits almost a cult.”
Sadly, I can’t ask my grandmother why she held onto this ad, if she ever wore any of these outfits or what she thought about the heyday of synthetic fabrics. But I’m glad my mother, who knows I’ve always appreciated what others carelessly toss in the trash, saw the potential in this 47-year-old newspaper insert and left it on my childhood bureau.