Friday, February 1, 2013

The "Black History" of Fashion - Elizabeth Keckley

Today marks the start of the greatest month of the year!!! February of course. Plus it contains the birth date (2-9-86) of a very special blogger. You guessed it none other than yours truly, ME. It may be the shortest month out of the twelve but it jammed packed with birthdays, holidays such as President's Day,  Valentine's Day, and exudes pride for African Americans across the nation as we commemorate our ancestors and those who made awesome contributions in our nation and beyond for Black History Month.

I know this is a fashion blog, but I also want to pay homage to those who have come before me. So I thought I would do some Black History Month blog posts about African Americans who made contributions in the fashion world during this awesome month of February. My first Black History spotlight shines on Elizabeth Keckley!

Name: Elizabeth Keckley
Birth Date: Year 1818
Birthplace: Hillsborough, NC
Occupation: Seamstress

Elizabeth Keckley (also known by the nickname Lizzie) was born on a plantation in Hillsborough, NC 1818. Her parents George and Agnes Hobbs were both slaves. Her father had a different master than her and her mother therefore he was relocated to a different plantation. After turning 7, Elizabeth never saw her father again (as his master moved his plantation and all his slaves to a different location). Elizabeth became an outstanding seamstress due to the skills passed down from her mother. Her mother sewed for the Colonel's family but also made extra money sewing for the Colonel's friends and acquaintances.

Elizabeth stayed with her mother honing in on her seamstress skills until her teenage years, where she was given to the Colonel's son and his bride as a wedding gift. She eventually was married to one of the Colonel's son's friend, James Keckley (which was a forced relationship that Lizzie didn't want). She  had her one and only son, George (named after her father) by James as well. The Colonel's son promised Lizzie that once James died she could buy freedom for herself and her son George. During that time Lizzie made income by sewing garments for the Colonel's son and friends (just as her mother did). However, she was $1,200 short of buying her freedom. But thank God for angels :) One of her patrons loaned Lizzie the $1,200 so that she could indeed buy her freedom and a better life for her and her son.

Once Elizabeth was granted her freedom she relocated from North Carolina to the Metro DC Area. As a newly freed resident in DC Lizzie started a school teaching young black girls how to sew and proper etiquette. One of her highest accomplishments of freedom is the fact that she became a personal dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln (the wife of President Abraham Lincoln) after making her a beautiful ball gown for the Inaugural Ball. Not only was Elizabeth Mary's dressmaker/seamstress, she and Mary also became really good friends (because Elizabeth was one of the only people who could tolerate Mary's sharp tongue and sometimes unpleasant temperament).  Lastly, Elizabeth Keckley pinned a book titled "Behind the Scenes" (also known as Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House) about the life of Mary Todd Lincoln and her life experiences in the White House during President Lincoln's tenure. The book was very controversial and was eventually removed from publication by Mary Todd Lincoln's oldest son.

"Behind the Scenes" A Memoir written by Elizabeth Keckley 

Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln dressed in one of Elizabeth Keckley's masterpieces

This rich blue gown is another one of Elizabeth Keckley's pieces of art. Which is in display at the Smithsonian Museum

We often praise the fashion sense of our First Lady, Mrs. Michelle Obama the first African American FLOTUS in the White House. But without people like Elizabeth Keckley paving the way 100s of years ago, we wouldn't even have the opportunity! So I tip my hat off to Madame Elizabeth Keckley and her impeccable legacy as one of the first African American designers creating White House couture pieces. 

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