February 3, 2012 at 1:22 PM

From Africa to Haute Couture: Black Women Designers Break the Barriers to Success

"...as more and more slaves obtained their freedom, metropolises became hotbeds for cutting-edge designs by talented African-American clothing designers"

By Greta Chapin McGill

Santa Fe Fashion and Style

Greta is an artist, writer and renaissance woman

Advertisement

The history of black female clothing designers began with the traditions of the indigenous attire of countries and tribes in Africa. Looking back at the early garments of black female designers, you can trace direct influences from these African-inspired designs. Even beyond African designs, many of the first black, female clothing designers drew their inspiration from a range of influences, propelling their clothing designs to success despite the barriers that stood in their way.

On the African Continent

In Africa, clothing described station. Kings, queens and members of the royal entourage dressed in elaborately-colored, loose cloth robes adorned with feathers, jewelry and animal skins. Traditionally, village women spun cloth, dyed fabrics and produced garments. Weaving cloth was done by both men and women with gender-specific looms.

Slaves arrived naked in the holds of ships and were then sold to southern plantations. Women worked the fields and made homespun cloth for clothing. Children were responsible for spinning and carding cotton and wool. Patterns and sewing needles were given to them by their owners and slave women made garments for owners and slaves alike. However, European-style clothing became the norm for the newly arrived slaves.

In the “New World”

It became an accepted norm for African-American slave women to design and sew beautiful garments for their owners. Moreover, as more and more slaves obtained their freedom, metropolises became hotbeds for cutting-edge designs by talented African-American clothing designers. New Orleans became a fashion mecca and many black-owned businesses designed, made and sold garments. The Civil War made it difficult for these southern businesses, so the industry moved North. Famed seamstresses Eliza Gardener, Grace Bustill Douglas and Catherine Delany all owned businesses in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Keckly

Elizabeth Keckly supported herself and her family through her dressmaking and design skills. She bought her freedom and moved to Washington D.C. She was famous for the inaugural gown she designed for Mary Todd Lincoln, wife to then-president Abraham Lincoln. This dress can be viewed today at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. The wives of Robert E. Lee, Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis were also clients of Elizabeth Keckly. A respected independent business woman, 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.

The Kennnedy Wedding Dress Designed by Ann Lowe

The history of fashion industry is full of important contributions from creative, talented black female clothing designers. They include Mildred Blount, an African-American milliner who made hats for Hollywood films, including "Gone With The Wind," and the Easter parade; and Zelda Wynn, who designed for Josephine Baker, Gladys Knight and even designed the first Playboy bunny costume. Moreover, Elizabeth Keckly and Lillian Rogers Parks went on to write successful memoirs detailing their stories as influential female clothing designers.

Orginally published on ehow.com.

Advertisement