Behind the Seams – Black fashion at the White House

(Originally blogged November 18, 2008)

It was hard not to be more interested in the American election this year than Canada’s and judging by the voter-turn-out for the Canadian election, I don’t think I was alone.

The fashionistas are already circling Michelle Obama; criticisms have been made about her back end in white slacks, her budget-priced print dresses, and her over-fondness for one particular yellow sweater. I admit I didn’t love that red and black Narcisco Rodriguez dress she wore on election night, however, I think Mrs. Obama looks great in tailored suits, print dresses, and classic sportswear; and her revival of the Jackie-esque pearl necklace was a stroke of genius that equated Kennedy elan with the Obamas.

Although Mrs. Obama may be America’s first black First Lady, she is not the first black lady to affect fashion in the white house.

Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln

Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House is a fascinating book about the life and times of Elizabeth Keckley (c.1820 – 1907) – dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. Her memoir recounts how she became a dressmaker to support her master and his family in St. Louis, and how she purchased her freedom and rose to the position of dressmaker to the First Lady. Her perspective from inside the White House throws an interesting light onto the politics of the era, especially as she became a sympathetic ear for Mary Todd Lincoln. After the president’s assassination Mary Todd found herself in dire financial straits; she turned to Keckley, who went to New York to help sell the elegant clothing she had made for Mrs. Lincoln during her time as First Lady.

This book would make a GREAT movie and it does resemble Backstairs at the White House at times but this story is more personal, revealing and surprising. And her clothes have not disappeared either. The famous purple velvet dress shown for years in the First Lady gallery at the Smithsonian turns out to be an original Keckley!

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