Perspectives | April 18, 2024

Elizabeth Keckley: The Silent Couturier of the White House

By R. Kofi Bempong

Born into slavery, Keckley's early life was marred by hardships that would have defeated many. Yet, with a spirit as enduring as the fabrics she mastered, Keckley's nimble hands, which once labored under the oppressive burden of servitude, stitched together a future of freedom and distinction.

Black and White sitting portrait of Elizabeth Keckley taken in 1870

The history of design is a vibrant and diverse mosaic of tales, many of which have yet to be fully revealed in their full magnificence. One such tale is the story of Elizabeth Keckley, whose remarkable journey from the bonds of slavery to becoming one of the foremost dressmakers of her time is nothing short of extraordinary.

Origins and Adversity

Elizabeth “Lizzy” Hobbs Keckley was born in 1818 in Dinwiddie Court-House, Virginia, into the tragic confines of slavery. The adversities she faced in her early years – physical abuse, personal loss, and the unyielding chains of servitude – could have quickly broken a lesser soul’s spirit. But Keckley, from her earliest days, seemed to possess a resilience that would define her life. A gift for sewing learned at her mother’s feet would provide a way out.

Crafting Independence

With a needle and thread, Keckley sewed not just fabrics but dreams. Her exceptional skill was her weapon and shield. Every garment Keckley sewed was a step closer to freedom.

Through a series of transfers within the Burwell family, Keckley found herself in St. Louis by the late 1840s. Here, she honed her sewing skills, gradually establishing herself as a skilled dressmaker. With each stitch, she was creating masterpieces and paving her path to emancipation. The bustling city also exposed her to vibrant, free black communities, sparking aspirations of liberty. By the 1850s, with the nation deeply divided over slavery, Keckley astutely negotiated the price for her and her son George’s emancipation with her owners. The agreed price was $1,200 – a hefty sum for the time. By 1855, she’d earned enough to buy freedom for herself and her son, reflecting her tenacious spirit and incredible talent. Shortly after that, Keckley moved with George to Washington, DC, where she began a successful career as a dressmaker.

The Capital’s Couturier

Washington, D.C., in the 1860s, was a city of contrasts. The capital saw despair, hope, conflict, and reconciliation as the Civil War loomed and then raged. Into this cauldron, Keckley arrived and set up her dressmaking business. Her shop soon became a rendezvous for the city’s elite. Senators’ wives, socialites, and the city’s crème de la crème all flocked to Keckley; their reasons were twofold: her outstanding craftsmanship and her innate ability to design that transcended mere dressmaking, capturing the zeitgeist of a tumultuous era. Her gowns, many of which are preserved in museums, are a tribute to her genius.

A portrait-oriented photo of an elegant, royal blue velvet period dress on a mannequin against a neutral gray background. This mid-19th century gown features a fitted bodice with a row of buttons and white lace collar, long, curved sleeves, and a full, bell-shaped skirt typical of the era. The dress is adorned with white piping along the seams and edges, enhancing its luxurious and formal appearance. The skirt's broad, smooth expanse and the velvet's plush texture reflect the light differently at various angles, indicating the high quality of the material and craftsmanship. Such a dress would have been worn by a woman of status or for a significant occasion, potentially representing the fashion of a first lady or a prominent female figure of that time.
Dress of Mary Lincoln by Elizabeth Keckley displayed at the National Museum of American History

A First Lady and Her Designer

In a turn of events that would seal her place in history, Keckley began working for Mary Todd Lincoln, the then-First Lady. It’s essential to understand the uniqueness of this partnership. Here was Keckley, a formerly enslaved person, now designing and advising the First Lady of a nation tearing itself apart over the very institution of slavery. Their relationship, marked by trust and mutual respect, went beyond that of a mere designer and client. Keckley became Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante, friend, and anchor during some of her most trying times.

Beyond the Stitch

This historical black and white photograph depicts a large gathering of African American people, most likely emancipated slaves, at a contraband camp during the Civil War era. Men, women, and children are seen in various attire, some standing, some seated on the ground. In the foreground, a few individuals appear to be engaged in activities, possibly cooking, as there is smoke rising from a spot on the ground. There are two main structures in the background, simple wooden buildings that might have been used for living quarters or other camp functions. Trees are visible around the area, indicating a rural setting. The image captures a moment of daily life in a community that formed in the wake of emancipation, highlighting the resilience and adaptability of those seeking freedom and a new life.
Contraband Camp, formerly used as a Female Seminary, circa 1863.

However, Keckley wasn’t limited by her role as a dressmaker. Her vision extended beyond the confines of her dressmaking enterprise. As the Civil War raged, she saw the influx of formerly enslaved people – “contrabands” – into Washington, D.C. Recognizing a dire need, Keckley established the Contraband Relief Association in 1862. With the support of influential patrons, including the Lincolns, the association provided food, shelter, and employment assistance to thousands.

A Memoir That Shook Society

While Keckley’s life story was already extraordinary, her decision to publish “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” catapulted her into the eye of a storm. This book wasn’t just a memoir. It was an audacious endeavor, offering an unprecedented view into the intimate life of the First Family and shedding light on the intricate dynamics of the Lincoln White House. The book provided an insider’s view of the White House, shattering the strict Victorian boundaries between the public and private spheres. Such a frank portrayal, especially by a formerly enslaved person, was unprecedented and incendiary.

The immediate aftermath of the publication was a massive public scandal. In an era where the private sphere was sacrosanct, Keckley’s revelations were seen as a violation of the most profound order. The backlash was swift and severe. Critics accused her of breaching privacy for selfish gains, citing the “marketable commodity” of scandal.

For all the immediate backlash, time has a way of reshaping narratives. Historians began revisiting Keckley’s memoir in the following years, seeing it not just as a scandalous exposé but as an invaluable account of the era. Keckley’s narrative was symbolic of the postbellum period, offering insights into the challenges formerly enslaved people faced and the socio-political dynamics of the time.

This is a portrait-oriented image of the title page of a book. The top portion of the image features a detailed engraving of Elizabeth Keckley, who appears in a mid-19th century dress with a lace collar. Below her portrait, the text reads "Elizabeth Keckley. BEHIND THE SCENES." followed by "BY ELIZABETH KECKLEY, FORMERLY A SLAVE, BUT MORE RECENTLY MODISTE, AND FRIEND TO MRS. ABRAHAM LINCOLN. OR,". The text indicates that the author, once a slave, became a dressmaker (modiste) and a friend to Mrs. Lincoln, hinting at the narrative contained within the book about her life and experiences in the White House. The page is indicative of historical memoirs, providing insight into the personal history of an African American woman who played a significant role in the Lincoln White House
Cover page of Behind the scenes, or, Thirty years a slave and four years in the White House – 1868


Elizabeth Keckley’s life, as controversial as it might have been, is undeniably a powerful reflection of her strength, tenacity, and spirit. In her story, we find a reflection of America’s struggles and evolution. From the chains of slavery to the heart of Washington, D.C.’s elite society and from obscurity to the pages of history, Keckley’s journey is a poignant reminder of American complex history.

A designer par excellence, a humanitarian, an author, and an inspiration for many people of color, Elizabeth Keckley’s story is a masterclass in resilience, reinvention, and redemption.