Fashion and Style, Historic Events, People, and Milestones

Elizabeth Keckley: White House Dressmaker, Author, and Civil Activist

May 26 2020

On May 26, 1907, dressmaker, author, and civil activist Elizabeth Keckley passed away at the age of 89. She was born into slavery in 1818, but her dressmaking skills were such that they enabled her to purchase her and her son’s freedom in 1855—an incredible feat considering the long history of slavery in the United States and that generations of people were born into enslaved lives. In 1860, she moved to Washington, DC, establishing her own dressmaking business and, a year later, Keckley was introduced to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, becoming her personal dressmaker and confidante.

Keckley was known for creating dresses with impeccable fit and sophisticated, understated design. A friend of prominent abolitionist leaders of the time, Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association in 1862, which offered relief to freed enslaved people who flocked to Washington, DC, during the Civil War. Keckley published her memoir, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, in 1868, which ultimately led to the end of her friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln. In 1892, Keckley accepted the position as the head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Service at Ohio’s Wilberforce University. She died in 1907 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, an organization she helped found. 

This three-piece day dress (c. 1862) in the Chicago History Museum’s collection belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln and is believed to have been designed by Elizabeth Keckley. It has a matching cape of green and white wool plaid, black wool buttons, and is edged with black wool braid. Though Keckley created many dresses during her lifetime, very few examples exist that can be positively attributed to her. Dressmakers at that time rarely labeled their creations, and garments were routinely remade into newer styles as fashion dictated. While the dress did not come with historical documentation, its clean lines and simple decoration is in line with Keckley’s design aesthetics. 

See more images of the dress.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s gown and cape. CHM, ICHi-066126 and ICHi-066122

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