Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Keckley was one of the most successful seamstress of the 1800s.
Keckley was born into slavery February of 1818, and as she matured into adulthood she used her sewing talents to purchase her freedom for $1200. From that point, her recently bought freedom allowed her to relocate to Washington D.C. and start a new life for herself.
In 1860 she launched her seamstress business and met Abraham Lincoln’s wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, whom she later became a personal designer for as well as a tenured close friend. Through her growing relationship with the FLOTUS she started building a name for herself amongst the political elite. She started sewing for the likes of Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Curtis Lee, and the wife of Jefferson Davis, Varina Davis.
Lizzie was mixed race, which still means black in today’s times, but for the 1860’s this was a plus that allowed her to merge into middle class society. That’s not to say that being mixed race made her life easier than other blacks, just that her established relationships directed her in a different paths. In 1868 she wrote and published an autobiography called Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was very controversial for that time, very similar to what we would call a ‘tell-all’ story. In the bio she rendered details of her seamstress career as well as intimate information regarding her relationship with the former first lady and her time in the White House. That book severed the friendship between the two women for quite a while before they both decided to reconcile many years later.
Keckley went on to do more wonderful things such as establishing the Contraband Relief Association also known as the Ladies’ Freedman and Soldier’s Relief Association. This foundation was designed to assist those in need of food, shelter, clothing, and offered emotional support for freed slaves and wounded soldiers. In her later years of life, she became head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University in Ohio. However, because of health issues she wasn’t able to retain her position very long, and later passed away May 1907.
Some of her dresses are viewable at the Smithsonian, Chicago History Museum, as well as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois. Elizabeth Keckley’s picturesque fashion designs will remain a legacy through the end of time.