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.
December 28, 2012
What do Michael Jackson, King Tut and Leonardo da Vinci have in common? A penchant for sequins.
At some point between 1480 and 1482, Leonardo whipped together a sketch for a machine that, using levers and pulleys, would punch small disks out of a metal sheet.
Since the device was never actually made, we don’t know if the Renaissance jack-of-all-trades dreamt it up to glamourize the gamurra, a typical women’s dress of the time, or if it had some greater utilitarian purpose.
Going back centuries before Leonard, there’s Tutankhamun (1341 B.C.-1323 B.C.). When King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, gold sequinlike disks were found sewn onto the Egyptian royal’s garments. It’s assumed they’d ensure he’d be financially and sartorially prepared for the afterlife.
Sewing precious metals and coins onto clothing wasn’t just prepping for the hereafter. In fact, the origins of the word “sequin” have always referenced wealth. The Arabic word sikka means “coin” or “minting die.” During the 13th century, gold coins produced in Venice were known as zecchino. For centuries, variations of sikka and zecchino were used in Europe and the Middle East. Incidentally, in England, they’re not sequins—they’re spangles.
Sewing gold and other precious metals onto clothing was multifunctional, serving as a status symbol, a theft deterrent or a spiritual guide. Especially for those with more nomadic lifestyles, coins were kept close to the body and attached to clothes (see example above). In addition to safekeeping valuables, sequined clothing doubled as ostentatious displays of wealth in places like Egypt, India and Peru and, with their glaring sheen, they were meant to ward off evil spirits.
An example of how we wear sequins today comes from the Plimoth Plantation women’s waistcoat. The museum website explains, “These fashionable items of dress were popular in the first quarter of the 17th century for women of court, the nobility and those who had achieved a certain level of wealth.” The jacket, a reproduction of a garment at the Victoria and Albert Museum, includes an astonishing 10,000 sequins hand-stitched by volunteers using a historic technique.
The reflective bits of metal—sewn onto the Plimoth jacket and dresses, bonnets and other jackets during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—made the garments and accessories look fancy. And that trend grew exponentially after the discovery of sequins in King Tut’s tomb. The round disks became all the rage on garments in the 1920s and were typically made of metal. (Imagine a flapper dancing in a dress weighed down by thousands of metal sequins.)
In the 1930s, a process to electroplate gelatin (hello, Jell-O…) produced a lighter-weight version of the shiny metal disks. But one major obstacle (besides the color being lead-based) was that the gelatin sequins were finicky; they would melt if they got wet or too warm. So getting caught in a thunderstorm could leave you in a sequinless sheath. Or, as the blog Fashion Preserved mentioned, “missing sequins can tell tales.” For instance, the warmth of a dance partner’s clammy hand on the back of a dress could melt the sequins. While not viable for their longevity on clothing, today they’ve become known for their edibility; it’s easy to find recipes to make palatable (although definitely not vegan) sequins from gelatin to decorate cakes and assorted baked goods.
The guy behind our contemporary understanding of sequins is Herbert Lieberman. After realizing that gelatin sequins wouldn’t do the trick, he worked with Eastman Kodak, a company that had begun using acetate in its film stock in the 1930s (acetate film is a specific type of plastic material called cellulose acetate) to develop acetate sequins. They looked beautiful but were still fragile. As Lieberman told Fanzine magazine:
“The light would penetrate through the color, hit the silver, and reflect back,” he says. “Like you painted a mirror with nail polish.” Brilliant, but brittle. “Acetate will crack like glass. The harder the plastic, the nicer the sequin’s going to be.”
In 1952, DuPont invented Mylar and that changed the sequin game yet again. The largest sequin producer, the Lieberman-owned company Algy Trimmings Co., now based in Hallandale Beach, Florida, adopted the transparent polyester film. Mylar surrounded the plastic colored sequin and protected it from the washing machine. Voila! Or, sort of.
Eventually the Mylar-acetate combination was discarded for vinyl plastic. More durable and cost effective, yes. (Although we now know that eventually the vinyl plastic curls and loses its shape.) Just as sparkly? Not quite, but good enough.
Which brings us to Michael Jackson one night in 1983 when he performed “Billie Jean” and premiered the moonwalk. He wore a black sequin jacket along with his iconic rhinestone glove (see first image in post), a look that made a lasting impression on the 47 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special. But that wasn’t the last time he’d be covered in shiny platelets. How about when he met the president of the United States in 1984 wearing a military-style, sequin jacket? Or on the HIStory world tour when he wore a white sequin number?
Melting, edible disks be damned, sequins are here to stay (and who knows what they’ll be made from 50 years from now). Yes, we expect to see them on a New Year’s Eve dress, but we’ve also grown accustomed to seeing them emblazoned on a basic white T-shirt or pair of flats. With accessibility comes diluted trends and with that comes, well, shapeless Uggs boots covered in what was once a symbol of attention-grabbing glamour.
December 14, 2012
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
– A Visit From Saint Nicholas
As far back as 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore (or possibly Henry Livingston Jr.) wrote “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” stockings were hung near the fireplace, awaiting a visit from Santa Claus. At the end of the poem, St. Nick “fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,/And laying his finger aside of his nose/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.”
Stockings have been an essential part of the Christmas tradition for centuries (except, briefly, in the mid-1800s, when the New York Times wrote that Christmas trees almost completely supplanted them as the tradition of choice).
The most popular legend about why stockings are hung at Christmas goes something like this: A recently widowed man and father of three girls was having a tough time making ends meet. Even though his daughters were beautiful, he worried that their impoverished status would make it impossible for them to marry.
St. Nicholas was wandering through the town where the man lived and heard villagers discussing that family’s plight. He wanted to help but knew the man would refuse any kind of charity directly. Instead, one night, he slid down the chimney of the family’s house and filled the girls’ recently laundered stockings, which happened to be drying by the fire, with gold coins. And then he disappeared.
The girls awoke in the morning, overjoyed upon discovering the bounty. Because of St. Nick’s generosity, the daughters were now eligible to wed and their father could rest easy that they wouldn’t fall into lonely despair. Whew! While obviously far-fetched, this tale of unknown origin and date is most widely referenced when it comes to the history of the Christmas stocking.
For some, the ritual has translated into hanging a nondescript sock (the bigger, the better, of course) pulled from Dad’s drawer.
For others, it has meant a personalized, decorated, maybe even handmade, foot-shaped bag hung year after year.
And sometimes, it means not hanging the stocking by a fireplace at all!
Whichever stocking set-up you prefer, there’s one more related factoid that’ll impress guests during your holiday party. Oranges tend to wind up in Christmas stockings, right? Ever wonder why? Some say it’s from a time when fresh fruit was more difficult to come by and finding an orange in your stocking was a huge treat. But a different version of that beautiful-daughters-distraught-father legend swaps the gold coins left by St. Nick with three gold balls left in each stocking. Understandably, the solid gold balls tradition isn’t so easy to replicate; that’s why their citrus look-alikes have found their way into stockings alongside tchotchkes and baubles, but hopefully not coal!
If you celebrate Christmas, what’s your stocking of choice? A tube sock, a silk stocking, the traditional red and white variety, or something else completely?
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
November 6, 2012
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, has recently digitized 60 percent of its collection and made it available to the public. If my math is correct, that means that 123,802 objects spanning 24 centuries can now be viewed online. Prints, drawings, graphic design, decorative arts, textiles, wall coverings and garments that previously had been on view only during exhibitions or in print catalogues can now be found on the Cooper-Hewitt website along with details about materials and construction, when the object was acquired and its provenance.
Take note that the database is in its infancy. That means the search functionality is still very limited and placeholders for a slew of images are commonplace. While you may encounter hiccups here and there, the Cooper-Hewitt Lab is fully transparent throughout this massive undertaking, letting us know that the glitches are just part of getting everything working smoothly. I’m willing to be patient, especially after I came upon some incredible objects—skewing more toward dress and textiles, obviously—while digging into the online collection.
And while you’re perusing the Cooper Hewitt’s collection, I highly recommend its Object of the Day series in which the museum spotlights the history and provenance of an object from its collection. One of the best so far—on October 24, the museum chronicled the Swatch watch and how it popularized the analog watch amidst a surge of digital Casios and Timexs.