Elizabeth Keckley: White House Dressmaker and First Lady Confidante

Elizabeth Keckley: White House Dressmaker and First Lady Confidante

This month’s post reflects the pursuit of highlighting more stories from forward femmes of color going forward on FFF. The post will focus on an important African-American female from the 19th century, Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), though much of her story takes place a little earlier than the usual FFF timeline. Keckley was a former slave who ultimately became primary dressmaker and dear friend to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, a confidante to Mary and the wives of politicians she dressed, as well as an activist. Against all odds, and being born into a nightmare of slavery, Keckley became a self-supporting dressmaker to some of Washington’s most influential women. As if that doesn’t already sound incredible enough, just wait to read more of the amazing details of Keckley’s life and her contributions to American society!

Elizabeth Keckley
Portrait from her memoir, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, ca. 1868

Fortunately for historians, Keckley’s memoir Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, provides a great deal of information on her life. Unfortunately for Keckley, the memoir would ultimately drive a wedge between herself and her friend, former First Lady Mary Lincoln, upon its publication in 1868. The focus of this post is on Keckley’s contributions to fashion and her relationship with Mary Lincoln, but links are provided throughout the post for further reading on other details of Keckley’s life.

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The Red Lip Controversy: A Glimpse of Lipstick History

Picture1
Pushup tube lipstick. ca. 1920, French, Etsy

The controversy of red lips at the turn of the century is an interesting one. In the late 1800s and very early 1900s, Western women who took to making up their faces were considered to be of loose morals, either someone whose profession involved the stage or a prostitute. According to Mimi Mathews, author of A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, “Queen Victoria herself denounced make-up as being ‘impolite,’” and this continued the established Victorian belief that makeup was a low form of trickery and/or sinister vanity.[1] The Manet painting below of the courtesan Nana caused an uproar at the time of its reveal. Not only is she in her underclothes within her boudoir, she is unabashedly applying makeup.

Manet_nana
Édouard Manet, 1877, oil painting, Public Domain

 

These associations with makeup began to change in the 20th century, albeit slowly. Prior to this time, lip color was applied by brush and would have been difficult to apply outside of the home. Due to the negative connotations with its use, if applied at all, it was done privately in the home and in natural colors that would not draw attention. Certainly not a bright red lip color! It was also not mass produced, so for the few brave enough to wear lip coloring or a lip salve, they would have concocted something at home (or their maid) and applied it as a paint. In the mid-1800s, they would have boiled suet (cow or sheep fat from the loin and kidney area) and lard with alkanet chips, and later in the 1890s, recipes using oil of almonds, wax, spermaceti, and alkanet root were used.[2] Varied recipes existed and changed throughout the years, but were always some combination of wax, oil, and color.

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Staying Home: 6 Fashion History Experiences from the Couch

Staying Home: 6 Fashion History Experiences from the Couch

For those looking to add some fashion history to their week after working hours (beyond shows and period films) here are some wonderful free options! As most of the United States is still under strict stay-at-home orders, as well as many other parts of the world, hopefully these virtual experiences can act as a stand-in for actual visits to museums, libraries, or other institutions for the time being.

Delivered straight to your laptop or smart device, this wide range of offerings will provide a way to engage with history from the safety of your home:


1. FIT’s Fashion History Timeline

Fashion History Timeline
screenshot by FFF, https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/, 2020

Peruse the Fashion History Timeline on the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Website: https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/

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Fashion History on Netflix & Amazon Prime Video: What to Watch While Social Distancing

Fashion History on Netflix & Amazon Prime Video: What to Watch While Social Distancing

The events of the past few months, and especially the past few weeks, have been unprecedented in our lifetime and have resulted in many of us sheltering at home, self-isolating, or otherwise staying in place to avoid further spreading Covid-19. FFF wishes everyone to stay safe and healthy during this time — especially those who do not have the luxury of sheltering at home during the pandemic due to the nature of their work! Thank you to all who keep the world running in times of crisis.

That being said, many of you may find yourself in need of an activity or looking for an escape from the news. FFF recommends its top 5 Fashion History shows on Amazon and Netflix that fall within 1880-1930!

Some of these shows operate as almost a clotheshorse to fantastic period costumes and accurately set the stage with a great amount of fashion history detail. Get ready for some historical binge-watching (*viewer discretion advised, some shows may not be suitable for all viewers):

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Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse; Exhibit Highlights

The Museum at FIT recently opened Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse on February 11 (open until April 18, 2020), curated by Patricia Mears, and features a variety of stunning ballet and ballet-inspired ensembles. The highlights in this post will focus on the items on view that fall within 1880-1930.

Dance has always been a wonderful way to evoke emotional and expression through movement. Those movements, of course, accentuated by the costumes the ballerinas wore. While ballet is seen as one of the ultimate feminine art forms, the physique and training requires a toughness that parallels the athleticism of any professional athlete along with a theatrical component. Costume can set the mood of the scene and create an allure. The Museum notes, “So profound was ballet’s impact that it asserted influence on many fields of creativity, one of the most important being fashion.” For many years, ballerinas’ costumes reflected current fashion, with beautiful feminine imagery, but had little impact on other realms of creativity.

Ballerina Fashions Modern Muse

This post will highlight objects from the exhibit up until the 1930s. The Museum notes that the 1930s were the era of the turning point in which “balletomania” took over, largely due to the influx of Russian dancers on the stage, and ballet became an influence for couturiers rather than just reflecting current styles (but acknowledging the decline of the ballerina as muse beginning in the 1980s).

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