Today Worn Through would like to present a guest post from Elizabeth Way, one of two people to receive Worn Through’s first research award. Elizabeth recently earned her master’s degree in Costume Studies from New York University. Her research interests include ethnic minorities’ integration of mainstream fashions in the 19th century, and currently she is focused on documenting African American fashion designers from the 1860s through the 1960s.
Elizabeth speaking at the CSA Symposium
I would like to begin my post by thanking Worn Through for the award they granted me to present my research at the Costume Society of America Symposium in Las Vegas this spring. The experience was certainly educational, but it was also a lot of fun. Las Vegas proved a stimulating and inspiring setting; the city itself is ripe for costume study. People watching included a wide variety of dress styles, and I had more than one conversation on the sociological and historical impressions of the exaggerated post-modern architecture combined with the amplified (or in many cases minimal) clothing of the casino revelers.
I spoke on the last of three days, and so I had many chances to see other presentations, meet with established and emerging scholars, and ask many questions about their museums and collections, their research, and their past experiences. As a young scholar I was able to put a few faces to the names I had cited in my own work, and I also connected with other emerging professionals in the field. I found myself just as impressed by students’ presentations as I was by seasoned professionals’ talks. For example, “The Mannequin’s Message: Problematic Display Tools for the Twentieth Century” presented by PhD candidate Alana Staiti was an engrossing look at how fashion mannequins designed in the 1930s and 1940s conveyed specific ideas about the American culture that produced them. Equally fascinating was Pravina Shukla’s talk, “Fantasy and Fact: The Carnival Costume of Afro-Brazil”, which examined a multifaceted contemporary Brazilian costume tradition with roots in Indian culture. These are two of many examples of spectacular presentations, and the conference served to remind me of what I know: costume history is a vibrant field that continues to evolve and grow.
One of the most significant aspects of the conference was gaining valuable feedback on my own research. I presented the first chapter of my master’s thesis, which focused on the material culture of two African American dressmakers, Elizabeth Keckly (1818-1907) and Ann Lowe (1898-1981). I was pleased to be selected to present on this topic because this chapter is somewhat technical and may not appeal to an audience that is not specifically interested in historic costume. Overall the goal of my thesis was to tie together these two fashion designers in a narrative of African American fashion design that began with enslaved dressmakers and is today represented by mainstream black designers. Keckly and Lowe’s work fits between these two groups; they both learned their skills from their enslaved, or once enslaved, mothers and grandmothers (Keckly had also been a slave for the first thirty-seven years of her life), yet they achieved independent success and significant positions within elite American fashion systems, paving the way for late twentieth-century fashion designers, like Arthur McGee, Stephan Burrows, and Patrick Kelly, to create well-known fashion brands. For both dressmakers, I focused in on the details of their designs and their construction techniques to create my own analysis of their styles.
Green dress, Elizabeth Keckly
Elizabeth Keckly is most famous for working as Mary Todd Lincoln’s primary modiste while she was first lady. Keckly is somewhat known in African American history because she wrote her memoirs in 1868, and other scholars have used this text as a primary resource on slave narratives, Civil War-era history, and details of the Lincoln family’s personal lives. In popular culture her character recently appeared in the film Lincoln, played by the actress Gloria Reuben, though her position within the White House was ambiguous in the movie. I spoke about four gowns, attributed to Keckly, that I had examined in my research. These gowns are located at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and the Chicago History Museum and are beautiful examples of fine craftsmanship and elegantly simple design. Less known, but increasingly recognized as an important American designer, is Ann Lowe, a society dressmaker in mid-twentieth century New York City, best known for designing Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown in 1953. I discussed four of the seven Ann Lowe gowns I examined for my thesis, located at the Museum of the City of New York and the Museum at FIT. Lowe’s work is again marked by high-quality construction and interior detail, but her style is distinctly feminine and floral. My presentation seemed to go over well, and I was especially encouraged to continue with one feature: showing photographs of the inside of the gowns. I also received suggestions to improve my work and for future research, as well as invitations to visit related collections.
Simply talking about my work is a great way to inspire new ideas, but at CSA, I found that discussing it with other costume historians produced nuanced considerations. Over lunch, another CSA member sparked a conversation with me about the role of dressmaking in African American women’s lives. Both Keckly and Lowe were able to significantly improve their situations in life through their professions: Keckly bought her freedom from slavery in 1855 with the money she earned and Lowe ascended from the Jim-Crow South to run a successful business in Tampa, Florida in the 1920s, and in New York by the late 1940s. The fact that these women were dressmakers is not a coincidence. My conversation partner pointed out that Rosa Parks was also a dressmaker, and we conversed about the idea of empowerment rising from this specific trade, which has the power to instill confidence in women who are disadvantaged by society and elevate them in many different ways. This conversation has stuck in my mind and I will continue to contemplate it as I move forward with my research on black dressmakers.
Detail, Anne Lowe dress
I will conclude my reflections on the symposium with encouragement to attend this annual conference, as well as others. I heard presentations about costume topics I had not even imaged, opening myself up to new ideas on not only what to research, but also how to conduct studies, and utilize material culture. This experience was crucial to my continuing research, and I am very grateful to both my fellow costume historians for their presentations and comments as well as to CSA for supporting this platform.