A Stitch in Time
In honor of both Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, discover the rich, inspiring—and often unsung—history of African American women’s important contributions to fashion and sewing.
Fashion History Lesson
Three years ago,The Black Fashion Museum, which was located inWashington, D.C., produced a program in NewYork City celebrating its final exhibition before donating its collection of clothing, hats and theatrical costumes to the Smithsonian.The Black Fashion Museum directors soon found that the fashion magazine editors in attendance at the event had much to learn about the featured designers.Though People magazine voted in 1999 that Jackie Kennedy’s 1953 gown was the most beautiful wedding dress ever, they failed to mention its designer,Ann Lowe, an Afro-American dressmaker who had a wonderful career designing for the upper echelons of NewYork society.Modern-day fashion editors might have known of Lowe had The NewYork Times credited her as the designer in its coverage of the Kennedy wedding. Only Nina Hyde of TheWashington Post mentioned “Negro”Ann Lowe as the designer. The omissions continued when the mail-order house, Franklin Mint, created a Jackie doll with a replica of her wedding dress and listed the artist as Oleg Cassini.These are small details, but typical of the problem of documenting the contributions of African Americans to fashion. Until researchers rediscovered information on Ann Lowe in the mid-1990s, she was effectively lost in history. African American women have been designing dresses and running dressmaking businesses since the 1700s. Plantation records show that Afro-American women did the sewing and knitting. By the 1800s, census and city directories showed advertisements and listings noting many “colored” dressmakers and milliners in most urban cities.
One thriving businesswoman was Eliza Gardner. She came from a free-born sail-making family.The family moved from NewYork City to Boston in the mid-1800s to get contracts for the fast clippers, which needed large sails. Boston was the leading port for these fast clippers that left from New England ports to Europe and the Far East. Eliza and her mother also sewed for wealthy Boston women. Eliza was known as a “mantua maker,” an Italian term referring to the skilled detail work necessary in making large hoops and intricate bodices. In the late 1800s, only skilled dressmakers could make these complex hoops, which were minor engineering feats designed to keep the skirt fashionably full while women walked, danced and tried to sit down. The Gardner family opened their home to runaway slaves fleeing from the South to Canada in pursuit of freedom.They also donated large amounts of money to their church from their sail and dressmaking businesses. They contributed sums as large as $200 to $600 a year to various missionary causes in Africa and the American South. In today’s money, these amounts would be equivalent to $20,000 to $60,000.
Elizabeth Keckley, who designed for Mary Lincoln, was not lost in history. She wrote a book about her experiences titled ThirtyYears as a Slave and FourYears in the White House, which is still in publication.The book documents the lives of the Lincolns as well as the people and times of the 1860s. Keckley was born a slave in southernVirginia. She moved with her slave-owning family to St. Louis, where she sewed for leading families. At age 30, Keckley was able to save enough money from her dressmaking work to buy her and her son’s freedom for $1,800. She then moved toWashington, D.C., where she designed all of Mary Lincoln’s clothing.The dress she designed for Lincoln’s inauguration is shown in the First Ladies Exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. Keckley’s quilt constructed from pieces of fabric left over from material she used for Mary Lincoln’s dresses is on exhibit at the Costume Museum at Kent University in Ohio.
Harriet Powers, who lived from 1837 to 1910, was born a slave in Georgia. Slaves did fancy needlework for their owners during the daylight hours and labored to provide practical clothing and bedcovers for their own families by candlelight.Textile historians note the similarities between Powers’ work and the techniques mastered by the Fon peoples of Dahomey,West Africa. Harriet used traditional African appliqué techniques on quilts to record historical legends and Bible stories told by her family. Powers created a panel titled “The Night of the Falling Stars,” depicting the three-day spectacular Leonid shower of meteors in 1833, four years before her birth.Another panel illustrates the “Dark Day” of May 19, 1780, when dense smoke from Canadian wildfires darkened the Northern Hemisphere. Only two of Powers’ exquisite quilts remain in existence. One is on display in the Boston Art Museum, and the other is part of the Smithsonian collection inWashington.
Jessie Wright Dinkins
JessieWright Dinkins, who lived from 1889 to 1968, lived in Camden, SC for most of her life. She learned to sew at Mather Academy in Camden. In the mid-1900s, Dinkins studied sewing in NewYork City and worked for a designer who created clothes for entertainers. During that time, Dinkins designed for a popular sister act called The Dolly Sisters, whose story was later told in a 1945 movie starring Betty Grable and June Haver. Later, Dinkins returned to Camden to create clothing for wealthy northerners who came south each winter to enjoy the steeplechase races. She was known for her ability to copy any design, make the inside of a dress as beautiful as the outside and create fabulous wedding ensembles.
ZeldaWynn had a dress shop across from Carnegie Hall in the 1950s and designed for the NewYork City social entertainment elite. Zelda felt that her creations could help make an entertainer’s career successful—much like today when Hollywood stars get extra press coverage as they strut the red carpet in a striking design. In the 1950s, various stars’ limos would line up around the block in front of Zelda’s shop as she worked through fitting and design appointments for singers and actresses. She worked for singers, such as the contralto Marian Anderson, and Joyce Bryant and the movie star, Dorothy Dandridge.Actress Ruby Dee remembered Zelda for making her wedding suit in the early 1940s. Zelda loved to talk about her fashion shows—especially the ones she did for the Playboy Club. She stated in various interviews that she designed the first Playboy Bunny costume. Zelda finished her career working for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, designing and teaching until she was 94. She died in 1996 at age 96.
Hazel Blackman, who is currently in her nineties and living in Florida, still continues to produce paintings and quilts. However, Hazel started out designing clothes. She was born in Jamaica,West Indies, and came to the U.S. to study and graduate from the now-closed Traphagen School of Design in NewYork. Hazel was one of the first designers to work with African fabrics in the l960s. She opened a store,Tree House, first located on Lexington Ave., then later in Harlem, NewYork. Her customers were excited to wear clothes that depicted the “exotic” colors and designs from Africa. Hazel attracted a wide clientele of working women, artists, and women who worked in the entertainment field. One client was Nina Simone, the well-known 1960s jazz singer, who enjoyed Hazel’s evening gown artistry. Stories on Hazel appeared in Mademoiselle,Vogue, Glamour, and McCall’s magazines, among others.After closing Tree House, Hazel returned to her loves: painting and quilting. She’s exhibited her quilts in curated shows and is now working on a memoir of her extraordinary life.
Joyce Scott & Xenobia Bailey
Two modern-day quilter-painter-knitters are Joyce Scott of Baltimore and Xenobia Bailey of NewYork.They do wonderful fiber artwork using yarn and mixed media to express their visions. Joyce graduated fromThe Maryland Institute of Art and Xenobia fromThe Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Both have studied, exhibited and taught at universities and museums around the world.Their richly creative work has been recognized in art books, magazines and television shows featuring fiber artists.Their sense of drama and whimsy, sometimes infused with touches of the surreal, is often combined with social commentary. Joyce is also a performance artist. She writes music, sings and has acted in many plays over the years. Joyce and Xenobia create clothing and jewelry and also sculpt various figures and fiber-art pieces for museum installations. Both Joyce and Xenobia extend what we think of as craft, charting the “un-thought-of” in their yarn, metal, bead and feather art pieces.
Tracy Reese is a star designer who epitomizes “feminine chic” with her vintage-inspired collections:Tracy Reese and the slightly lower-priced line, Plenty. Tracy graduated from Parsons School of Art and Design in NewYork. She worked with various design firms in NewYork and Paris before trying twice to launch her own firm. She thought she had “paid her dues” and was on the right track but the fashion industry is often a male success story.The second attempt to start her business worked and she now sells over $30 million a year.Tracy has been profiled in TV and news stories in almost every national and international publication.NowTracy has two boutiques in NewYork City. She also sells to specialty stores and many major department stores, such as Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and the Anthropologie store chain. The new expansion of her fashion business is designing shoes, belts and handbags for Steve Madden.Her modernday success is a fitting tribute to the struggle of earlier Afro-American designers.Ann Lowe would be proud!
Rosemary E. Reed Miller is a history graduate of Temple University. She is the author of The Threads of Time, The Fabric History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers; 1850s to the Present. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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