Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Mantua Maker, Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley was born the daughter of an enslaved woman and her master. She was nevertheless blessed with great talent and determination; she ultimately purchased her own freedom and that of her son with money she earned as a fine seamstress. That alone would be a remarkable story, but Ms. Keckley saw her son to college and herself to Washington DC, where she became a “mantua maker,” most in demand by the ladies of highly placed politicians, including, most significantly, Mary Todd Lincoln.

She was a smart business woman and thrifty manager, and she organized a mission to aid the “Contraband,” the great mass of runaway slaves who sought refuge in Washington, on the frontier of abolition. She sacrificed much of her own income to fund their relief and education.

Ms. Keckley became a White House intimate and a confidante of the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, exclusively designing and sewing her lavish gowns and personally dressing the First Lady for festive occasions, as well as for extended mourning. Her life story is that of a heroine in tragic days of great figures and greater events, and she should stand, not in domestic shadow, but shining in the light of recognition for her phenomenal achievements.

To learn more of her life, and perhaps also change your opinion of Mrs. Lincoln, read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini.

Imagine, this grand gown, worn by Mary Todd Lincoln,
made by Ms. Keckley, was sewn by hand, one stitch at a time; ruffles
and trim were not supplied ready made, as today.
Madame Keckley was the undisputed mistress of the "mantua" -- a fitted
gown worn over pantalettes, corset, hoops and petticoats.

In tribute, a bracelet in the Victorian manner, of steel links, antique buttons, painted and foiled Milagros, and a salvaged, well-worn costume cameo set in a vintage bezel. On the back of the rosy heart, you’ll see a small collage of Elizabeth’s face and a scrap of antique Civil War-era poetry, encased in resin to give it some wearability. The subdued reds and dark patinas give this bracelet the look of mourning jewelry, lest you forget the monumental losses of that time. (Take a lesson, and some responsibility, you politicos, of the terrible human consequences of polarity when harmony is most needed! The days of Lincoln were marked by party squabbles no less rancorous, and personally slanderous, than today's.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Inspiring and moving. Your bracelet is a lovely tribute.