Category: Fashion History

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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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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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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Always in Vogue: Edna Woolman Chase

Always in Vogue: Edna Woolman Chase

When we think of Vogue magazine today we often think of its current editor-in-chief, the formidable, Anna Wintour. While Wintour will certainly go down in history as one of Vogue‘s long-standing (since 1988) and notable editors-in-chief, there is another important Vogue editor who’s run at the magazine lasted from 1914-1952 — Edna Woolman Chase.

In this month’s post I’ll highlight excerpts by Edna Woolman Chase (1877-1957) on fashion she wore and observed during her early years from the autobiography she wrote with her daughter, Ilka Chase, Always in Vogue. 

Chase witnessed the changes in silhouette that this blog chronicles, from 1880-1930, and I love that we’re able to have a primary source that comments on these distinct changes — not to mention, someone involved in the fashion industry who happens to be very opinionated!

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Women’s Tennis at the Turn of the Century

Women’s Tennis at the Turn of the Century

This month is the US Open, and in celebration of the powerful females on the court today, I’d like to take a look back at the women who were playing at the turn of the century. We may look to Serena Williams now for fashionable inspiration as well as her incredible abilities on the court, but 100 years ago female players would typically wear a practical version of their usual day wear clothing.

The women below in this photo stylishly pose in their tennis gear, except that there is no discernible difference between how they dress themselves for the court and how they would dress themselves for day’s activities. The large leg-of-mutton sleeves are typical of the 1890’s silhouettes. The straw boater hats perched on top of their hair (which has been swept up into a top knot) was also a popular choice at this time and into the 1900s for any activity in the sun. Their long dark skirts that contrast the large, light-colored shirtwaists was a preferred look in the 1890s for any woman. The woman on the left wears a necktie and the woman on the right appears to have a bow tie with a starched shirt front. This would have been a slightly more masculine accessory choice, but one that was also very typical for that period. These women emulate what would have been called the New Woman at that time, meaning the kind of woman who was breaking away from a more traditional, home-bound role and was more independent and active – both in a physical and political sense. Still, this represented a large group of women at the time and this look would have been relatively common sight. In short, these women were able to wear their normal day wear clothing to also engage in physical activities like tennis. They are both stylish and mobile enough to play in their wide skirts.

Two_women_dressed_for_a_game_of_tennis,_1890-1900_(6894955048)
Two Women Dressed for a Game of Tennis, January 1, 1895, Queensland, Australia, State Library of Queensland  [No restrictions]
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