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"Slaves to fashion," not society : Elizabeth Keckly and Washington, D.C.'s African American dressmakers, 1860-1870

Author: Virginia E Reynolds
Publisher: [Place of publication not identified] : [publisher not identified], 2011.
Dissertation: A thesis submitted to the Faculty of the State University of New York College at Oneonta at its Cooperstown Graduate Program in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, 2011.
Edition/Format:   Thesis/dissertation : Thesis/dissertation : Manuscript   Archival Material : English
Database:WorldCat
Summary:
Born a slave in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, Elizabeth Keckly purchased her freedom in the 1850s and eventually established a prominent dressmaking business in Washington, D.C. Keckly's 1868 autobiography, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, aimed to clarify her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln, her most famous patron. Regardless of the autobiography's original intent, the
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Details

Named Person: Elizabeth Keckley
Material Type: Thesis/dissertation, Manuscript
Document Type: Book, Archival Material
All Authors / Contributors: Virginia E Reynolds
OCLC Number: 768131061
Credits: Advisor: Cynthia Falk.
Description: vi, 70 leaves : illustrations (some color), charts, map, portrait ; 29 cm
Other Titles: Elizabeth Keckly and Washington, D.C.'s African American dressmakers, 1860-1870
Responsibility: Virginia E. Reynolds.

Abstract:

Born a slave in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, Elizabeth Keckly purchased her freedom in the 1850s and eventually established a prominent dressmaking business in Washington, D.C. Keckly's 1868 autobiography, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, aimed to clarify her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln, her most famous patron. Regardless of the autobiography's original intent, the lively narrative illuminates Keckly's experience as she transitioned from slavery to freedom, while relying upon her abilities as a dressmaker to negotiate her status. Dressmaking, a skill Keckly acquired while enslaved, subsequently enabled her to navigate the economic realities of freedom and secure independence.

Drawing upon city directories and census schedules, this thesis contextualizes Keckly and her occupation by investigating the relationship between Keckly's life as a domestic slave and life as a free dressmaker, examining local social and economic conditions, and exploring the culture of dressmaking in Washington, D.C. from 1860-1870. Numerous local factors in both the black and white communities combined to make Washington, D.C. favorable to African American dressmakers. An established antebellum black community laid the foundation for an expansion of black business in the 1860s. Washington's population swelled throughout the decade, providing the elite clientele to support dressmaking and a group of seamstresses to perform less-skilled labor such as sewing long, straight seams.

Nineteenth-century Americans placed substantial social value on clothing, which, beyond covering the body, visually communicated individual character and status. The exacting fit and fine materials of custom-made apparel distinguished elite women in Washington and elsewhere. Prior to the Civil War, upper-class women in the capital turned to larger, more cosmopolitan cities for high-end clothing. Partially a result of demographic changes, by the 1860s dressmaking expertise was available locally and filled a distinct need.

African American dressmakers were instrumental in tailoring elite white female identity in the 1860s. Dressmaking enabled skilled black women to create a niche within Washington's developing social and commercial sectors. For some like Elizabeth Keckly, fashion became a means of employment and empowerment.

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Primary Entity

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