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  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

Elizabeth Keckley: Style Maven in the White House

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

It’s Black History Month, so I wanted to take the opportunity and talk about some amazing women of color that you may not have heard of! Today, that person is Elizabeth Keckley, a seamstress and designer who worked in the White House for Mary Todd Lincoln. (Mary was a complicated and rather tragic figure from history. You can read more about her life and love of fashion and jewelry in my post here).

Elizabeth lived her life as both a slave and a free woman. She experienced the Civil War, owned her own business, and wrote a memoir. All in all, she was an extremely accomplished woman of her time, regardless of race. So let’s get to know her!

She bought her own freedom

That’s right! She paid $1,200 for herself and her son. In today’s dollars, that would be over $30,000! But Elizabeth didn’t come up with that money on her own. (At that time, the most a working black woman could make in a day was $2.50!) She had been doing sewing work on the side for many years, so she had some savings. But the bulk of the money came from her sewing customers, who wanted her to be free.

For Elizabeth, it was important to be free before she got married. She had watched her mother be separated from her husband when his owner moved away, and she was determined not to repeat that same situation.

Elizabeth Keckley, shortly after she moved to Baltimore, MD

Elizabeth was almost 40 years old when she bought her freedom and got married. She had been working for the Burwell family her entire life. At the time, she was living in St. Louis, MO. But once she repaid the customers that helped her get free, she moved to Baltimore, MD.

Unfortunately, Maryland was passing lots of laws restricting free blacks, so she moved to Washington, D.C.

She had good business sense

Elizabeth had a real skill as a dressmaker. This was a time before mass production, so you needed to buy all the components of a dress and then pay someone to make it for you. The fabric, the fur, the lace, and other embellishments. In her time, she was essentially a designer. She was known for how well her dresses fit. All the ladies of Washington wanted to have a dress made by Elizabeth! The wives of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were frequent customers of hers.

An Elizabeth Keckley design, from the collection of Mary Todd Lincoln

Her dressmaking business was incredibly successful, allowing her, as a black women, to be part of the middle class. At certain points, she was even able to hire seamstresses to help her out.

Elizabeth had a knack for making the right connections, saying the right things, and being friends with the right people. She seemed to inspire people who wanted to help her succeed. In fact, an introduction from a wealthy customer was what led her to Mary Todd Lincoln, First Lady of the United States.

She was friends with the First Lady

Elizabeth met Mary Todd Lincoln on the day of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. They must have hit it off, because Mary hired Elizabeth the very next day. She because Mary’s personal modiste (fancy French word for dressmaker). Essentially, her stylist.

Elizabeth Keckley

The first time Mary wore one of Elizabeth’s dresses, Abraham reportedly said, “I declare, you look charming in that dress. Mrs. Keckley has met with great success.”

For the next several years, Elizabeth helped Mary on a daily basis. I wrote an earlier blog post about how much Mary loved dresses and jewelry and fashion. Each season, Mary had about 15 or 16 dresses made especially for her. Each one took anywhere from three weeks to three months to make. As the First Lady, she attended a lot of events, and was always in the public eye. It was important to her to convey the appropriate image of a First Lady. And Elizabeth helped her with all that.

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Remember also, that this was the Victorian era. There were ridiculous rules about what could be worn when. Certain colors for daytime versus nighttime. Elizabeth’s designs were popular, in part, because they followed all those rules. Plus, they fit extremely well, and flattered the women who wore them. Her designs were viewed as upscale and sophisticated.

She suffered from her share of tragedy

In her time as a slave, Elizabeth was beaten frequently and raped. Her only son was a result of being raped. In fact, Elizabeth herself was bi-racial. Her mother confided on her deathbed that her father was their white owner, Armistead Burwell. Elizabeth’s son had light enough skin that he passed for white when he signed up to serve in the Civil War.

Elizabeth was despondent when her son was killed in battle in 1861. This loss, though, helped deepen her bond with Mary, who had lost children as well.

Mary Todd Lincoln, c. 1860

Elizabeth realized how fortunate she was having skill as a dressmaker that allowed her financial independence. Others were not so lucky. Without skills or business savvy, many former slaves had a hard time making a living. Back then, they were referred to as “contrabands.” So Elizabeth founded the Contraband Relief Association. It was unique, because it was a charity founded by black people for other black people. A novelty at the time. They helped black soldiers too, holding free dinners, arranging for housing, and giving out clothing and cash.

She’s a published author

Not surprisingly, after working together for so long, Mary and Elizabeth got to be good friends. In fact, Mary referred to Elizabeth as “my best living friend.” It was in this spirit that Elizabeth published her own life story, Behind the Scenes. Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.

Elizabeth wrote about her own upbringing, starting and maintaining her business, and what went on in the White House behind closed doors. She wrote about Mary and Abe’s children, Mary’s grief, and included lots of letters and personal correspondence. She hoped her book would show the country a side of Mary they didn’t normally get to see. And she hoped they would be sympathetic.

It was about three years after Abraham had been assassinated, and Mary was having a hard time. She was still grieving, in debt, and finding it difficult to support herself financially. It seemed as though everything she did was wrong in the public’s eye.

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Unfortunately, the book was a complete disaster. And it meant the end of Mary and Elizabeth’s friendship.

People were appalled at the book! And at Elizabeth in particular. They really felt it was an all out assault on wealthy people’s privacy. I mean, if you couldn’t trust your dressmaker or other servants to keep quiet about what went on in your household, what kind of world were we living in???!!!

Elizabeth, who had been so good at getting along with rich white people, now found herself out in the cold. Customers felt as if they couldn’t trust her. Her dressmaking business went downhill. Her and Mary never spoke again. Mary considered the book a “betrayal.” Elizabeth died a poor woman in 1907 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.

She’s an inspiration

Despite the rather sad ending to Elizabeth’s story, I still find her inspirational. And it seems I’m not the only one. Her biography is interesting in and of itself. For a long time, I think she she was just overshadowed by other things happening in that time. Like, you know, the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

She’s been featured more frequently lately, including in the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln, the 2013 play Mary T & Lizzy K, and the 2016 play A Civil War Christmas.

I was pretty impressed with Elizabeth. What about you? Had you heard of her before?


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