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.
December 3, 2012
As the sun dips below the ocean’s horizon on a cruise ship, swimsuits and flip-flops give way to the evening’s dictated dress code. Depending on the cruise, that means suits or tuxedos for men and formal gowns or cocktail dresses for women. The dining room code, in contrast to the informality elsewhere on the ship, is a relic of another time.
Ship dining rooms were formal from the start, at the beginning of the 20th century. They reflected the lavish lifestyle that their wealthy transatlantic passengers enjoyed on land and the attire that was typical when high society dined at home. Men wore black tie and women donned floor-length gowns and jewels.
As the cruise industry expanded its reach to the middle class, and vacationing on a boat became accessible to the masses, the practice of formal dining was maintained. No matter that wearing a tux to supper wasn’t a normal way of life on land; on a ship, it was meant to make the vacationer feel transported to the upper echelons of society. Pop culture acknowledged it, too: ”The Love Boat,” a kitschy early -’80s television show from which a generation’s cruise wear assumptions were derived, kept the formal look alive (while keeping bow ties oversized and hair feathered). Season 9 of “Murder, She Wrote” had a Caribbean cruise murder mystery episode in 1993, with Angela Lansbury donning her dinnertime finest.
These days, dress codes on cruise ships have loosened somewhat. Many cruises no longer require formal attire nightly. Dinner attire is often classified as formal, informal or casual (or optional dress, but that’s another story). With our increasingly casual culture (pajamas on a plane?), it’s remarkable that these oversized floating amusement parks for kids and adults alike have retained such a vestige from the past.
In the footnotes of his essay that’s critical of cruise ships, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace implores readers to bring formalwear on a cruise after he did not heed the cruise’s dress code and suffered the consequences:
I … decided in advance that the idea of Formalwear on a tropical vacation was absurd, and I steadfastly refused to buy or rent a tux and go through the hassle of trying to figure out how even to pack it. I was both right and wrong: yes, the Formalwear thing is absurd, but since every Nadirite except me went ahead and dressed up in absurd Formalwear on Formal nights, I—having, of course, ironically enough spurned a tux precisely because of absurdity-considerations—was the one who ends up looking absurd.
If David Foster Wallace or the Simpsons or the shift toward casual dress permeating all other aspects of our lives have anything to do with it, it won’t be long before the only tuxedo jacket worn on a cruise will be one that’s printed on a T-shirt.
November 16, 2012
Along with the requisite high-tech gadgets and gizmos, it wouldn’t be a James Bond movie without 007 sporting an impeccably fitted dinner jacket (usually accompanied by some high-stakes hijinks). The dinner jacket—or tuxedo, as it’s less elegantly referred to in the United States, or smoking (as in le smoking), as it’s wonderfully called in some parts of Europe—has been around since the late 19th century when the Prince of Wales lopped of the tails of his tailcoat for less formal, but still fancy, dinner parties. It’s thought to have made its way across the pond after the prince invited the wealthy James Potter of Tuxedo Park, New York, to his estate in 1886. For the occasion, Potter had a dinner suit made at the prince’s British tailor, Henry Poole & Co. When he returned to the States, he wore the get-up to his country club, the Tuxedo Club, and thus tuxedos were born in the U.S.
Sean Connery, along with some expert tailoring, established the classic Bond dinner jacket look. Made by bespoke tailor Anthony Sinclair, the first dinner jacket premiered on the silver screen in the 1962 Bond film, Dr. No. Sinclair was known for crafting a slimmer-fitting, pared-down style of suiting, or the “conduit cut” as it became known.
The comprehensive site The Suits of James Bond details the inaugural dinner jacket:
The shawl collar and all other silk trimmings are in midnight blue satin silk. A nice feature is the silk gauntlet cuffs, the turn-back at the end of the cuffs. It’s an Edwardian decoration, and perhaps the only purpose of them is when they wear out they can be replaced. Otherwise, the cuff fastens normally with four silk-covered buttons. Like any proper single-breasted dinner jacket, this one fastens at the front with only one button.
The 1974 Bond film, The Man With the Golden Gun, introduces us to the white dinner jacket (cream dupioni silk, to be exact). While most of 007′s dinner jackets over the space of 23 films are timeless, this one, worn by Roger Moore, is more pre-disco, with its wide lapels, oversized bow tie and Moore’s Bain de Soleil bronzed complexion. Again, The Suits of James Bond explains:
The cut is Cyril Castle’s classic double-breasted 6 button with 2 to button and has a narrower wrap. The shoulders narrow and gently padded. The jacket has double vents and the pockets are slanted and jetted. The cuffs button 1 with a turnback detail and don’t have the link button feature that Roger Moore wears on his other suits in the film.
Fast forward to Daniel Craig as James Bond in the recently opened Skyfall. Classic and updated for 2012 (and paired with a less treacherously oversized bow tie), the Tom Ford navy suit jacket has that super-fitted, semi-shrunken look of a Thom Browne suit. Deferring to The Suits of James Bond for jacket details:
The shoulders are straight and narrow with roped sleeveheads. It’s a traditional button one with a shawl collar, faced in black satin silk. Also in satin silk are the buttons and pocket jettings. The dinner jacket has three buttons on the cuffs and a single vent, a first for Bond on a dinner jacket. I’m not sure the reason why a single vent was chosen; it’s too sporty for semi-formal wear and it’s really only something Americans do. It’s the only non-traditional detail in the outfit.
Forty of the exact same suit, with slight variations, were used to make Skyfall (reinforced knees, blood splattered or longer sleeves, depending on the action-packed sequence). Thankfully, no ruffled polyester shirts, belled pant legs or turquoise cummerbunds were harmed in the making of this latest Bond thriller.