“NWHM de Pizan Hat Auction: The Elizabeth Keckley Bonnet”

By: Laura Spears

The world recently re-discovered the remarkable Elizabeth Keckley. She has been a featured character in movies, plays and books. This new interest in Elizabeth (known as Lizzie) as a historical figure is understandable. After all, it is no small accomplishment for a woman born a slave to become Washington D.C.’s most sought after dressmaker, a business owner, the president of a humanitarian organization, and a published author.

In the summer of 1862, Lizzie and a friend were out for an evening walk and observed a white family giving a party for the benefit of wounded soldiers. “This suggested an idea to me,” wrote Lizzie. “If the white people can give festivals to raise funds for the relief of suffering soldiers, why should not the well-to-do colored people go to work to do something for the benefit of the suffering blacks?” The following Sunday, Lizzie announced her plan to her church. Within two weeks, she had founded the Contraband Relief Association. With forty other women she raised money to provide food, shelter, clothing, and medical care to the 40,000 escaped slaves and injured black Union soldiers who had come to the Washington D.C. area seeking asylum. Her travels with Mary Lincoln allowed her the opportunity to raise additional funds in New York, and found a branch society in Boston.

Lizzie’s life highlights the complexity of race relations in the mid nineteenth century. Her biological parents were an enslaved black woman and a white plantation owner. Lizzie lived the first 34 years of her life in involuntary servitude to her own family, before she purchased her own freedom. It was then that she moved to Washington D.C. where Mary Lincoln hired Lizzie as a dressmaker. They became so close that Lizzie was the first person Mary sent for the night her husband was assassinated. After his death, Mary gave Lizzie the brush that she frequently used to comb the President’s hair. Indeed, Lizzie lived her life in a grey area, as a sister/slave, and then a Negro employee who became a close friend.

Despite her close relationship to the Lincoln family, Lizzie only requested a social invitation to The White House on one occasion. On April 11, 1865, Lincoln delivered a speech from a second story window of The White House. The President had been called upon to speak immediately following the surrender of the Confederacy days before, but he declined, and promised to speak on this particular evening. Lizzie asked Mary if she might attend, and bring a friend, and Mary consented. The bonnet I have made is designed for this visit to the White House.

Lincoln delivered his speech that night from a second story window to a massive crowd that had gathered on the lawn of. Watching from windows flanking Lincoln were guests, including Lizzie, and the Lincoln family. The façade of the White House and the lawn were lit with hundreds of candles. To complete the tableau, Lincoln’s son, Tad held a lamp aloft his father’s notes while he read.

Three days after this picturesque evening, Lincoln would be assassinated. On the night of the assassination, three messengers were dispatched to locate Lizzie and bring her to Mrs. Lincoln, but none of them could locate her house. The next day, Lizzie came to Mary and hardly left her side over the following weeks. She would even sleep in Mrs. Lincoln’s room and assist her in moving from the White House to Chicago.As the most sought after modiste in Washington D.C, Lizzie likely had very good taste and took great care with her appearance. Although her clients were the wives of very wealthy men, she herself never became wealthy. Financially, in 1865 Lizzie was among the middle class. Her clothes would have been well constructed and of good material, but still of modest cost and decoration. The bonnet I designed reflects Lizzie’s middle class status and that of a woman with taste and decorum.

She would not be limited in her choice of materials. The middle class of 1865 had a growing amount of options in the materials they purchased for their clothes. The advances in technology made fashionable clothing much more affordable. The sewing machine, invented in the 1840’s, sped up the manufacture of clothing. By the 1860’s, attachments for sewing machines made it easier to sew on trim and braid, add tucks, pleats and gathers. As a result, clothing and hats in this time period were highly ornamented with ruffles, pleats, and trim.

In other advancements, Aniline dyes were developed. Before, fabric was colored with plant-based dyes. One of the first colors of aniline dye produced was a vivid magenta. The color became very popular in Victorian women’s fashions. The first dress that Lizzie Made for Mary Todd Lincoln was of a rose colored moiré silk, the dress was at the height of fashion and technology.
The most ubiquitous head covering for American women in the 1860’s was the bonnet. The shape of the bonnet evolved every couple of years. During the Civil War, bonnets that sat far back off the face that exposed the forehead and the hairline were popular. The specific shape I chose for Lizzie is called the spoon bonnet. The spoon bonnet is characterized by a straight line from the crown at the back of the hat to the tip of the brim, going up at a severe slant. This, and its oval shape make it appear that a large spoon frames the wearer’s head. A ruffle, called a bavolet, skirts the back of the hat around the neck.

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