The History of Black Women in Fashion Design
Fashion design and the black woman’s role in cloth making goes as far back as early civilization. Still today many female designers of African descent draw on inspiration from Africa in their designs, there is a longstanding and unbreakable connection with the roots of a craft so old and current at the same time. In this article we take a look at the history of black women coming up through fashion design and dressmaking.
The oldest photographs of African people show that they had a strong sense of fashion and a keen eye for intricate design, even today in many African tribal societies fashion is widely significant and varied. Different tribes could then and now easily be distinguished by their attire as with a person’s occupation, age and social status. Items of clothing in ancient and today’s tribal Africa has even more significance than that of the Western world, where fashion for the most part today is a matter of status, choice and fun, rather than order, etiquette, spirituality and symbolism.
Ancient Africa – The attire of early African civilization was greatly varied as still is today. The attire would include vibrant and richly dyed lengthy clothes, feathers, animal skins, jewels of both precious stones and natural items such as woods and seeds. Traditionally it was the village women who would produce the garments, by spinning cloth, dying, sewing and styling. However, weaving was done by both men and women.
Slave Trade – Most Africans who were captures and carried away on ships to arrive in the Caribbean and the Americas as slaves were brought over near to if not completely naked. The women would make homemade spun cloths for clothing garments and the children would help with spinning of cotton and wool. The women upon recognition of their skilled hands were soon after were given sewing instruments and patterns by the slave masters so that they would make clothes also for their owners. During the 18th century African-American women slaves despite taking on a prominent role as dressmakers had no influence on the design of the clothes made for their owners, they would follow the contemporary and European designs of clothe making, including for clothing which they made for themselves.
As Africans in American began to gain their freedom, talented African-American designers turned their skills into professions. It was not until the early 19th century that black women began to be recognized as fashion designers in the full sense of creating personal designs. Thanks to Elizabeth Keckly, Francis Criss, Ann Lowe and Zelda Wynn Valdes, African-American women began to gain recognition for their skill as fashion designers.
Elizabeth Keckly – Elizabeth Keckly began her own dressmaking business in 1860 in Baltimore and later in Washington, shortly after buying her freedom from slavery and escaping harsh and both physically and sexually abusive at the hands of her slave masters (the Burwell family). She went on to support herself and her son with the business of dressmaking and design.
Among her prominent clients were Robert E. Lee, Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, and, perhaps most significantly, the First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckly became much more than a dressmaker to the First Lady, she was also in the words of Mary Lincoln “her best friend.” Elizabeth Keckly made a real achievement from being a slave to a prominent dressmaker, business woman and friend of the first lady and further she worked towards the abolition of slavery through her well-connected white clients.
Francis Criss – Born in Virginia Francis Criss was known in Richmond as a talented seamstress. In 1915, she moved to New York City, where she designed and made garments for Broadway stars as well as actress Gloria Swanson. A flamboyant and free spirited personality, her home in New York was a center for influential African-Americans.
Ann Lowe - Ann Lowe was born in Alabama in 1899 and moved to New York at the age of 16. She attended design school and opened a shop on Madison Avenue. Her clients included members of the Vanderbilt, Roosevelt, and Rockefeller families. She made more than 1,000 dresses per year for society clients and sold her designs in Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin. In 1953, Ann Lowe designed the dresses for the entire bridal party, the mother of the bride and the bridal dress for the wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier to John F. Kennedy.
Zelda Wynn Valdes - Zelda Wynn Valdes opened her own shop in Broadway in New York in 1948. She was known for her sexy hip-hugging styles and numbered among her clientele many of the notable black women of that era including Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald and Gladys Knight. Wynn started out by cutting her patterns out of newsprint, studying her grandmother’s seamstress and working in her uncle’s tailoring shop. Little known to many, her work even caught the eye of Hugh Hefner, who commissioned her to design the original and most popularly known costumes for the Playboy bunnies. She also helped found the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, an organisation of black designers.
Black women have certainly made a most worthy contribution to the growth of the fashion industry and to the elegance of women’s wardrobes dating back to ancient Africa. Given the history of fashion design for black women our presence in today’s fashion industry is considerably low. However, we can change this by ensuring that black female and male fashion designers receive our support as did Zelda Wynn Valdes from black stars such as Josephine Baker.