Historic Dressmakers


This page contains profiles of three women who are prominent in American history. Each one was brave, hardworking, and amazingly persistent, and each one had a strong social conscience that led her to become a voice for justice and human rights. Just by coincidence, they all happened to be dressmakers. 

Rosa Parks, Civil Rights Activist

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a department-store seamstress sitting on a bus just said "No," and sparked a social movement that affects us all to this day. A white man boarded the bus and was unable to find a seat in the "Whites Only" section, so the bus driver told Rosa Parks to give up hers. Back then, a city ordinance required blacks to surrender their seats to whites when the white section was filled. She refused. 

Mrs. Parks knew what she was doing when she defied segregation law. She was already part of the growing civil rights movement in the Southern states--she had been active in the NAACP since 1943 and had met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "When the driver asked me if I was going to stand up, I said No. I was willing to risk what would happen to me because I had endured that treatment so long," she later explained. Mrs. Parks was arrested, convicted, and fined. On the advice of an NAACP lawyer, she refused to pay the fine so that she could challenge the city ordinance in court. 

The black community then began a boycott of the bus system, which nearly ruined the bus company. It ended 381 days later, after the Supreme Court ruled that the segregation ordinance was unconstitutional. 

Who could imagine that a seamstress in an obscure Southern town would move a nation to change its laws and beliefs?

Elizabeth Keckley, Freed Slave and Dressmaker to a First Lady

Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Virginia in 1818, the illegitimate daughter of a slave, fathered by a white plantation owner. Forty-two years later, she was the personal dressmaker and confidant to Mary Lincoln, the First Lady of the United States. Keckley's success was nothing less than amazing, and it was due not to luck or patronage, but to incredible persistence, hard work, and integrity. 

The story of her life in slavery was a common one: beatings that left scars, separation from her infant son and from the man she believed to be her father, and of course, enforced labor. Even her earnings for her early work as a seamstress were taken to support her impoverished owners. She also endured the same fate as her mother: her son was born as a result of her owners permitting a white plantation owner to have sex with her against her will over a period of four years. (Her son was light enough to pass for white and even served in the Union army during the Civil War.) 

But what was uncommon about Keckley was her endurance, pride, and personal integrity. She didn't have enough money to buy her freedom at first, so in 1854, a white client of Keckley's raised the $1200 Keckley needed to free herself and her son, and lent it to her--a remarkable occurrence at that time, and a testimony to the woman's trust in Keckley. 

In 1860, Keckley and her son moved to Washington, D.C., where she started her own dressmaking business. Word of her skill and talent spread, and one day a highly placed client recommended her to Mary Lincoln. Her gowns for Lincoln were remarked upon in the newspapers for their beauty and elegance, even though many were created in a rush. Keckley's business grew until she employed as many as 20 assistants, a level of success that few dressmakers in modern times could match. 

Her dignity and trustworthiness were important factors in earning the confidence of both Mary Lincoln and her husband. Keckley was sometimes asked to brush the President's hair into place before important events, and she nursed their sons when they were ill. Mary Lincoln often called Keckley to the White House for comfort when the stress of the Civil War and the loss of their son Willie overwhelmed her. In the years after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Keckley was impressively loyal to his troubled widow, even to the point of neglecting her own thriving business. 

Keckley was an active and progressive member of the black community. She was president of the First Black Contraband Relief Organization, founded to help newly freed slaves ("contrabands"). She saw to it that her son had an education, a right denied her when she was young. When President Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Keckley ceased to do business with his daughters, an impressive stand on principle for a former slave whose business depended on white customers. 

In 1892, Keckley left Washington for Wilberforce University in Ohio, where she taught in the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts. In 1898, she returned to Washington to live in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, a modest boardinghouse. She died in 1907 at the age of 88, an historic seamstress and an amazing woman.

Mother Jones, Labor Activist

"Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front... The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me. My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care." 
-- Mother Jones 

Visit an external site to read a brief biography of Mother Jones

 

 

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Copyright 2000 Christina Cary/The White Bow. Last modified June 2000.