Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

I just finished Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini.  It is a historical fiction account of the life of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who used her dress making skills to buy her and her son's freedom. Those same skills eventually led to Washington, D. C. and the Lincoln White House where she served as Mrs. Lincoln's "modiste."  She not only made Mrs. Lincoln's dresses but would help to dress her for special events including her hair and accessories. She also became a good friend and confidant.

Jennifer Chiaverini is known for writing novels including historical events, quilters, quilts, and quilting.  I found it interesting that she was also drawn toward a historical figure who sews and who is the likely maker of what is known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt.  Elizabeth is thought to have made this quilt from the leftovers from the dresses she made for Mrs. Lincoln.

Madam Elizabeth Keckley was also known for her charitable endeavors and empathy for former slaves arriving in Washington, D.C. after the Emancipation Proclamation.  She lost her only son, who was fathered by a white man, in the Civil War.  He had signed up as a white man in Missouri during the early years and was killed in action in 1861.

Mrs. Lincoln was not Madam Keckley's only famous customer.  She also was the dressmaker for Varina Davis, First Lady of the South, and the wife of Robert E. Lee prior to the Secession.  During the 1860's she employed many seamstresses in her work shop.  Later in life she taught Sewing and Domestic Sciences at Wilberforce College.  Madam Keckley played a part in the Lincoln film produced by Steven Spielberg which was recently released.  This article tells more about the Costuming of the "Lincoln" film.

These figures can be found in the Lincoln Library and Museum.  I have read several biographies about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.  This book added great additional details and nuances.  I admire Elizabeth Keckley's skill with with a needle and thread and her determination to live an exemplary life.

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