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Elizabeth Keckley - Pioneers Who Have Shaped America's Fashion Industry

Elizabeth Keckley, a remarkably successful dressmaker, built her career upon exacting technical standards, graceful clean lines, and an understanding of Parisian fashionable trends. She is well known for her work for the political elite of Washington D.C., particularly for Mary Todd Lincoln. Born in Virginia in 1818, she was taught dressmaking skills by her mother. Through her dressmaking business, she built her reputation for her exemplary work ethic and her thoughtful designs for the wives of the political elite.

Along with her work in fashion, she was an activist for formerly enslaved African Americans. In 1862, Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Organisation, which was a fund to support struggling Black Americans who had recently migrated to Washington. She had an eye for detail and her designs showed a polished elegance. Despite the challenges she faced in her life, Elizabeth Keckley was influential on the visual culture of the 1860s, and the broader history of American fashion. Today, only a limited number of Keckley dresses have survived.


Image: Unknown. Elizabeth Keckley, detail from front-piece of Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. 1868. Illustration. Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Text: Burholt, E (2020) ‘1818-1907 – ELIZABETH KECKLEY’ 24 July. Available at:

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