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African American Dressmakers Pre-1900

Collection of the Library of Congress
Images collected by W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway for the "American Negro Exhibit" at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Collection of the Library of Congress

I personally am not terribly adept at sewing, and I always admire those who are able to create beautiful garments out of a little fabric and thread. Before the advent of sewing machine, and with it the growth of garment sweatshops in the industrial north, every piece of clothing was handmade by someone - whether it be the wearer, the wearer's mother, or a tailor or dressmaker.

Like many others, I tend to flock toward the beautiful clothing created by well-known (and high class) designers like Charles Frederick Worth, but what about the clothing every day people wore? Who made those? Even further, who made prominent African American women's clothing?

This was a question I had as I was scrolling through Alvan Harper's photograph collection from the State Library and Archives of Florida.

What I thought would be an informative question with lots of search results has turned into an infuriating dilemma - one that could potentially fill pages and turn into a full-fledged thesis if I had the time or the opportunity. Upon an initial search of African American dressmakers, I was left feeling frustrated. Only one dressmaker from pre-1900 continually came up. Further searches yielded very little.

Rosemary Reed Miller, author of Threads of Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers from 1850 to the Present highlights 16 black dressmakers - most who either had high profile careers, or were owned or employed by well known individuals (Such as George Washington and Mary Todd Lincoln). Out of those 16, four women worked prior to 1900.

One of those four, Elizabeth Keckley, who worked for Mary Todd Lincoln, wrote an

autobiography in 1868 titled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. It was extremely controversial at the time, and now, is an excellent primary source when discussing slavery, women's occupations in the 1860s, and even about the Lincoln family. But that's just one example. There are surely others, sprinkled throughout scholarly research, or have extant examples in museum collections. These women, like Elizabeth Keckley, known for their skill or their powerful white connections. What about all of the other ordinary black women whose names and fates have been lost to time?

In her 2019 thesis titled The Fall of the American Dressmaker 1820-1920, Angela Cramer-Reichelderfer accurately sums this up:

"While extensive research details the historic contributions of black women to the American economy as agricultural and domestic laborers, the dressmakers and milliners discussed in the research are generally white, European immigrants, and white native-born women of European descent. Black women have been largely discounted in the experiences of the trained dressmaker and milliner and a general account of their trade education, professional prospects, wages, and relationships with their trade suppliers and clientele has yet to be revealed."

She further determines that working women, especially working black women, were largely excluded from official records. Unfortunately, this was probably the case for many black business owners after the war, both male and female, regardless of their profession.

I did find an extant example of a complete dress in the Charleston Museum's collection made in 1890 by African American seamstress Mme. Pauline Seba.

Apparently, Sara Simonds' trousseau also included Parisian couture gowns, and thankfully, Mme. Seba's garment, like many couture gowns, contains a printed cotton twill label - unusual for an African American business at this time. This suggests Pauline Seba's skill was exemplary and her business booming. The Charleston Museum also has a skirt from another African American seamstress from about the same time of one Julia Bulkley, who also utilized a twill label in her garments.

But again, Pauline Seba and Julia Bulkley are like Elizabeth Keckley - prominent enough to have wealthy clients, giving them a better chance to survive in the permanent record.

As a society, we have long way to go in correcting the disparaging differences in what is and is not remembered, giving voices to communities that were often overlooked or forgotten.

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