Mainewhile: Historic Black designers knew how to dress for success

I have a guilty secret. This isn’t something I admit too often – and it certainly isn’t something you’d guess by looking at me – but I have an absolute weakness for fashion. My one and only request at Christmas was the book “How to Read a Dress.”

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

I had two copies under the tree.

To satisfy the nagging inner critic, appalled at this frivolity, I turn to Frances Corner, noted academic, who wrote “Why Fashion Matters.”

“Fashion matters to the economy, to society and to each of us personally. What we wear tells the story of who we are or who we want to be more quickly than anything else.”

So that’s that settled for my ego’s sake. Fashion is more than fluff.

Fashion tells a deeper story, too. Beyond a mere projection of self-identity and the cultural norms of the times, the history of fashion is often an integral element of history itself.

For example, the remarkable life of Elizabeth Keckly. Born into slavery, the daughter of a white man who claimed ownership over her family, Keckly endured hardships and horrors while enslaved.

Intelligent, proud and with an iron will, Keckly refused to accept the restrictions others placed upon her. She worked hard, eventually buying freedom for herself and her son, George. Her admirable skill as a dressmaker quickly earned her several influential clients and eventually brought her to the White House, where she was dressmaker to, and closest friend of, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Nearly 100 years later, the staggeringly talented Ann Lowe crafted what instantly became an iconic wedding dress for future first lady Jaqueline Bouvier, who was to be wed to John F. Kennedy. A flood at Lowe’s studios had destroyed the original dress and Lowe replaced it at her own expense, working long hours to have it ready on time. However, when Lowe came to deliver the dress, she was told to use the back entrance because she was Black. In a move I admire greatly, Lowe replied she’d simply leave with the dress if not allowed to use the front door.

That had to take immense courage. Far from well off financially, Lowe had used her own money to remake the dress. To lose the commission would have been devastating, and threatening to walk took guts. It worked. Lowe was admitted through the front door and Jackie went on to make fashion history. Regretfully, she omitted Lowe’s name as the creator when asked.

Omission was the theme of Lowe’s life. Working exclusively to outfit the elite – she was pretty open that normal folks such as myself did not interest her – Lowe’s creations were seen on the best and the brightest. But, while her clients might have been oozing glamor, they were stingy both with payment and giving credit. As a result, Lowe never had neither the funding nor the leverage to mount her own house of fashion. Therefore, while her work rivals that of Dior, Chanel and other greats, few know her name.

In each case, these bold, brave, intelligent women brought their skill, style and sheer talent to shape the way a nation saw itself, even as they themselves were kept in obscurity due to racist attitudes about the color of their skin. I can’t help but think how tragic that is. For them most certainly, but I mean for all of us. Imagine how much more interesting, complex and rich our collective conversations could have been.

Elizabeth Keckly. Anne Lowe. To you both, I tip my hat. I thank you for the roles you have played in weaving the fabric of our nation and our history.

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