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Dressmaker Fannie Criss and Black History Month

Last summer, I wrote a post on African American seamstresses and dressmakers pre-1900, and how so many have been forgotten unlike their white contemporaries. It was quite fortuitous that I happened across an amazing dressmaker right on the cusp of this Victorian/Edwardian fashion thanks to the Virginia Association of Museums' Top Ten Endangered Artifacts!

The Virginia Association of Museums is a fantastic organization for museum professionals and Virginia museums. They provide advocacy for museums at the state and federal level, as well as helping museums and museum professionals succeed. Their Top Ten Endangered Artifacts program raises awareness for collections care and this year promoted the care for under-represented communities and their stories. Thanks to several generous donors, VAM is able to offer grants to several institutions to have their item conserved for future generations. One item within this year's Top Ten was an afternoon dress in the collection of the Valentine, Richmond, Virginia, made by African American dressmaker Fannie Criss, c. 1905.

I've been working with Kristen Stewart, the Valentine's Nathalie L. Klaus Curator of Costume and Textiles, on locating items in their collection for the Historical Society of Western Virginia's upcoming Botetourt 250th anniversary collection, and was so excited to make a connection with her concerning Criss. We both were geeking out about Criss, sharing the enthusiasm for this amazing dressmaker. When I wrote that post last year, I stopped my research at the turn of the century, mostly because that's where my interests lie - at least pre 1930 - and I missed a plethora of information right here in my home state!

Fannie was born in Madison, Cumberland County, Virginia, in 1866, to a formerly enslaved couple - Samuel and Adeline Criss. She was the seventh child in the family, but the first to be born free. In the 1870 census, her father was listed as a farmer, while her mother 'kept house.' Neither could read. At some point in her early life, Criss learned to sew, and moved to Richmond's Jackson Ward prior to 1895.

Between 1890 and 1920, Richmond's Jackson Ward earned itself the title of 'Harlem of the South,' as well as the 'Birthplace of Black Capitalism,' for its independence to function separately from its white Richmond counterparts in the racially charged and Jim Crow era of segregation. It's no surprise that a young girl from Cumberland might have been drawn to the bustling city life an hour from her family's farm. After her arrival in Richmond, she worked as a day cook for $1.50 a day.

V.44.48.06a,b, Second Day Dress, 1896. Made for Mrs Gordon Wallace by Fannie Criss, Gift of Mrs. Gordon Wallace (née Ellen Clarke). Courtesy of the Valentine Museum

On February 17, 1895, Fannie married William Thornton Payne on February 17, 1895. In the 1900 census, she is listed as the head of the household and employed as a dressmaker, while her husband was a waiter at a hotel. Fannie was so successful that she was able to purchase two properties, one of which was on Leigh Street's Quality Row - the homes of Richmond's black professional elite. Her Richmond clients were wealthy white women, as well as Richmond's black elite, like her neighbor Maggie L. Walker, the United States' first African American woman to found a bank. Later, her clients included actress Gloria Swanson and her Harlem neighbor Sarah Breedlove Walker and daughter A'Lelia Bundles.

Her success continued: Fannie was mentioned in the first issue in 1904 of the Voice of the Negro, a short-lived monthly publication out of Atlanta that aimed to keep its readers posted on "Current History, Educational Improvements, Art, Science, Race Issues, Sociological Movements and Religion," and would "prove to be a necessity in the cultured colored homes and a source of information on Negro inspirations and aspirations in the white homes."

The magazine stated:

The finest dressmaker in Richmond, regardless of color, is Mrs. Fannie Criss Payne. Her list of patrons is made up of the best white families in Richmond. So great is their confidence in her ability and taste that many leave to her the selection of their entire outfits. In the last six months she has made the trousseaus for the most popular brides. She employs eight girls regularly and her business amounts to more than $8,000 a year.

Her creations were referenced in Richmond's society pages, and because of this, Fannie never had a need to take out any advertising for her work. In one of the Valentine's dresses from 1904, Fannie utilized her own labels for her creations - a true sign of bespoke success in the dressmaking business.

Label inside one of Fannie Criss Payne's dresses, c. 1905. Courtesy of the Valentine Museum.

Fannie was extremely skilled in coming up with the extravagant designs for Richmond's elite. Her craftsmanship is evident - she created highly fashionable garments out of the best materials of the time - truly bespoke pieces similar to those coming out of Paris.

Sometime between Richmond's official census on April 25, 1910, (Fannie was still listed as married to William Payne, now a manager at a pool room), and April of 1911, Fannie moved to New York. She divorced William Payne, and despite her status within Richmond's Jackson Ward, as well as her notoriety among Richmond's white upper class clientele, Fannie may have felt trapped. Substantial barriers were being erected between whites and blacks throughout Richmond, Virginia, and all of the south: between 1896 with Plessy vs Fergus (which declared separate but equal facilities for whites and blacks) and 1910, the rising Jim Crow legislation requiring segregation throughout every day aspects of life exploded.

In one such example, Virginia required all trolley and streetcars to enforce segregation on all its routes by 1906. Richmond's population protested, and city councilman and Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell Jr. mocked the laws stating, "Richmond Negroes and whites have been travelling upon the streetcars together for forty years. Has this transient acquaintanceship led to the amalgamation and mixing of the races?" Furthermore, this new law gave streetcar conductors a policeman-like power to carry guns and enforce the law when they felt it was being infringed upon. It made the African American community wary, and unwarranted enforcements abounded. This growing rift between white and black communities fueled tensions and led to violence.

In the course of running her business, Fannie regularly traveled to New York to buy fabric. Perhaps she felt it would be easier to escape the Southern societal apartheid and live in a community where African American culture was not only accepted, but thrived. By April 22, 1911, Fannie had moved to Harlem and married William T. White, a head waiter in New York. They purchased a brownstone in Harlem at 137th street, close to Striver's Row, which also served as Fannie's atelier. Following the French fashions, she identified as a modiste. Unfortunately, Fannie died in February of 1942, and was listed as a hairdresser on her death certificate. It isn't known what happened to Fannie's business, but the lack of need for custom garments throughout the Great Depression and WWII may have influenced this shift in profession.


With Fannie's divorce and remarriage, the lines between her identity blurred. As Kristen found out, the Valentine actually has four dresses designed and made by Fannie, all thanks to research that was done as a result of their exhibit Pretty Powerful: Fashion and Virginia Women in 2018-2019. In their database, some of Fannie's designs were labeled with the last name Payne, while others used Criss. Making the connection between the two was a fantastic discovery. It not only gives life to the objects themselves, but helps tell the story of Fannie Criss Payne White. Her remarkable story as the daughter of slaves, a successful African American Southern entrepreneur, and finally a woman amidst the great migration of African Americans northward, actively participating at the height of the Harlem Renaissance is one that can now be remembered through extant garments at the Valentine.

Congratulations to the Valentine for winning VAM's 2020 Top Ten Endangered Artifacts and receiving $1000 toward the conservation of this amazing dress!

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