Fashion has been a phenomenon of collective behavior since the fourteenth century. Yet as an industry in the United States, it did not exist until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The early fashion industry in the United States was based on custom-made clothing fitted to the individual. Tailors produced custom-made suits for men and women; dressmakers (also known as “mantua makers”) specialized in women's dresses, skirts, and bodices. The mass production of clothing did not begin until the mid-nineteenth century, with menswear. At that time women's wear, including such...
Fashion has been a phenomenon of collective behavior since the fourteenth century. Yet as an industry in the United States, it did not exist until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The early fashion industry in the United States was based on custom-made clothing fitted to the individual. Tailors produced custom-made suits for men and women; dressmakers (also known as “mantua makers”) specialized in women's dresses, skirts, and bodices. The mass production of clothing did not begin until the mid-nineteenth century, with menswear. At that time women's wear, including such items as cloaks and mantles, was still produced on a small scale. As a result, there was a need for skilled needlewomen to produce custom-made clothing. The fashion industry created significant opportunities for women in the needle trades as dressmakers, seamstresses, and tailors and later as designers, models, fashion writers and editors, and factory workers. The history of black women in the fashion industry begins with the slavery period.Clothing and Textile Production on the PlantationAs slaves, many black women were trained in the needlecrafts to create fashionable apparel and home furnishings (such as quilts) for the plantation owner's family. In addition, many also worked in the fields by day and sewed at night for the slave population. Others were solely seamstresses or dressmakers for the plantation, sometimes bartered to other plantations for their skills. Many slave women worked side by side with the plantation mistress in making garments for the slaves or the plantation mistress and her family. Slave women sewing fashionable apparel for the plantation mistress had to know how to sew so that a garment not only looked good on the outside but also was made well enough to withstand normal wear. Thus skill in fit and quality were important talents to possess.Before the task of sewing could begin, slave women were also involved in the production of textiles as skilled dyers, spinners, and weavers of cloth. Typically, they made the cloth for slave clothing, because the fancier fabrics used for plantation families were imported from abroad or from large cities. Even though historical evidence points out that slave dress was typically dull in color and uniform in style, evidence also reveals that the dyer or weaver might add an element of creativity to her task by using barks and roots for dyestuff and colored yarns to make a striped or checked fabric rather than a solid-colored one.As with needlecrafts, many slave women took part in every aspect of textile production, although there was some difference in when and how often they labored in the spinning or loom room. Spinning was one of the tasks often carried out after field work or during bad weather, when work in the fields was compromised. Children frequently helped with the spinning by winding the yarn on a stick once the spinning was complete. A woman might work on the spinning in her own cabin or in a room designated exclusively for spinning, with several spinners working simultaneously. Other slave women were assigned solely to textile production. A woman, often an older woman who could no longer work in the fields, was assigned to spin yarn or weave cloth all day. On some plantations there was a separate building, known as the “loom room,” for weaving, and dyeing took place under a shed.Most of the cloth produced by the slaves became slave clothing. Dresses were often constructed in one-size-fits-all. The style followed fashionable, lines with a full skirt, attached bodice with high round neckline that buttoned up the front, and long sleeves. Slave wear had to be functional, so skirts were often shorter than was the fashion of the period, and bodices were cut for room, not fit. However, slave women that worked in the house often received hand-me-downs from the plantation mistress or even had new clothing. House servants worked close to the plantation family and were often the first people seen by visitors. These servants were better dressed because they represented the house and the family.The letters and diaries of antebellum white plantation mistresses reflect on the making of slave clothing, on working side by side with a particular slave to produce the family's clothing, and on the disdain of spending time on slave clothing production. In contrast, slave narratives provide recollections of the pride slaves possessed in the sewing produced. In addition, numerous entries of former slave women furnish us with information about the quality of work produced, the type of work completed, and the skill and creativity employed in making the clothing, whether for themselves or for the plantation mistress and her children.Also during the antebellum period, free black women throughout the United States often made a living as dressmakers. Some may have learned their skills while living on the plantation, others from family members. Whichever the case, they found livelihoods constructing fashionable apparel for both black and white clients. Dressmaking required that a woman have a knowledge of the latest styles of fashionable apparel as well as an understanding of the process of designing, measuring, and cutting a garment and fitting it to the client. Consequently, a dressmaker had to grasp all of the intricacies and complexities of making women's clothing—no easy task when compounded by the need to achieve all of this through hand sewing, because the sewing machine was not widely used until the 1870s.Black Women in the Needle Trades after SlaveryIn freedom as in slavery, African American women utilized their expertise and creativity as dressmakers, seamstresses, and tailors to pursue these needle trades in cities and towns throughout the United States. Although the numbers of black women employed in the needle trades were lower than those of white women and immigrants in the fashion industry, it was a noble profession for black women. Such cities as Boston, Baltimore, and New York provided clients, places of work, and opportunities for black women entrepreneurs in the needle trades.During the nineteenth century, African American women in the needle trades utilized their skills in the complex work of tailoring and dressmaking or the less complicated work of hemming and sewing on buttons. Therefore, a wide range of skills and specialties made up the needle trades in America. A woman's experience, age, and clientele often influenced wage level. By the 1870s most women were using sewing machines in at least part of the construction of women's fashionable clothing, yet the industry continued to require proficiency in all of the hand techniques as well.Dressmaking was not an easy profession. The woman pursuing it had to be an exceptional seamstress and understand pattern making, sizing, and fit. The dressmaker completed all of the basic parts of creating the garment: measuring, cutting, basting, and the final sewing and application of the trim. One reason why most women's clothing was not mass produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had to do with the complicated designs of women's fashions. Between 1870 and 1910 women's apparel included close-fitting bodices with structured necklines and sleeves. Skirts were long and full, with fullness arranged in various methods around the skirt, depending on the particular fashion period. Along with the basic shape of the skirt and bodice came the addition of trim in the form of ruffles and pleated panels, many of which were then ornamented with beaded tassels or braided fringe. So, although dressmaking was held in high esteem as an occupation for black women, it was a time-consuming endeavor. Some dressmakers owned their own shops and hired a staff; others worked for several families at a time, or one family. Yet whether a woman worked out of her home, in a shop, or for another dressmaker, she had to have the funds to buy her materials: needle, thread, fabric, and trim. Wages depended on the clientele, the season, and the outcome she was able to produce.Those women who did not have their own dressmaking businesses or worked for another dressmaker or tailor earned income in the fashion industry by completing piecework at home for clothing manufacturers. Of the needle trades, dressmaking was considered the prestigious occupation, whereas a seamstress was considered unskilled, because she predominantly completed straight sewing tasks rather than the complicated work of a dressmaker or tailor. Racial discrimination, not lack of expertise, thwarted many black women's advance from seamstress to dressmaker. This is indicated by census data: by the turn of the nineteenth century, greater numbers of black women worked as seamstresses than as dressmakers in the United States.Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, if a woman was not employed as a dressmaker, she probably spent long hours creating fashionable apparel for her own family. Newspapers provided fashion columns that enlightened all readers about the latest fashions. Publications like Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine, Peterson's Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue also informed black women of fashionable styles from the fashion centers of nineteenth century America: New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston. Consequently, fashion information was available to the home seamstress as well as the professional.These publications continued to contribute fashion information in the twentieth century as the American fashion industry transformed itself from a predominantly custom-made industry for women's apparel to one moving quickly toward mass-produced garments. By the beginning of the twentieth century, more items of women's apparel were mass produced. This list included suits, skirts, and blouses. By 1910 every article of female clothing was ready-made. As factory production of women's clothing increased, so did the retailing of these items. Even with this progress, black women retained their roles as dressmakers and seamstresses in the major American cities of Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Atlanta.Female workers classified as artisans in W. E. B. Du Bois's study The Negro American Artisan included dressmakers and seamstresses. Dressmaking (along with the occupations of seamstress and tailor) was considered one of twenty-seven leading occupations for black women in America between 1890 and 1900. Black women dressmakers increased by 65.7 percent from 1890 to 1900. Universities such as Hampton, Tuskegee, Spelman, and Wilberforce taught courses in dressmaking and sewing. Even though the fashion industry was centered in New York City, towns and cities throughout the United States provided black women with the opportunity, though limited, to continue to work in the fashion industry.. This portrait appeared on 16 May 1931 in the Palmetto Leader (Columbia, South Carolina), accompanying an advertisment for her services in her home as a dressmaker and seamstress; later that year it accompanied an ad for the Angie Evans Dress Making and Art Shoppe. Richard S. Roberts CollectionMany black women were able to turn their special talents with a needle into a means of making a living and were featured in newspapers and magazine articles. For example, in its August 1904 issue, the periodical The Voice of the Negro published an article about Mrs. Fannie Criss Payne of Richmond, Virginia, who was described as “the finest dressmaker in Richmond.” The article stated that her customers have such “confidence in her ability and taste that many leave to her the selection of their entire outfits.” The Colored American Magazine published an article written by Madame Rumford, a noted African American dressmaker from New York City. Her article included sketches and descriptions of the latest dress styles and directions on how to make them. In another example from the Colored American Magazine (April 1905), Mrs. H. L. Kemp of Brooklyn, New York, was considered one of Brooklyn's leading designers. Her specialties were evening gowns, tea gowns, and stage costumes. She worked out of her home: “In short, Mrs. Kemp is a success.” (Although these three women represent only a few of the examples of successful black businesswomen in the fashion industry, many others practiced this trade.)During the early twentieth century, African American newspapers and magazines provided readers with information about fashionable dress. This came through fashion columns, advertisements, and descriptions of wedding attire provided in wedding announcements. As with contemporary announcements, newspapers of the time listed the clothing worn by the groom, bride, and bridesmaids. Advertisements in African American print media provided information on local dressmakers and others in the needle trades advertising their skills and services.Women's magazines often provided paper patterns with which to make women's clothing. Many paper patterns came in one size only, so the dressmaker would have to adapt the pattern to the measurements of her various customers. Dressmakers made a great effort to perfect this task. Advertisements in newspapers often offered women information about classes in special dressmaking techniques. Mrs. Ida Wimbish's advertisement indicated that she was a “Teacher of Brown's System, Boston, of Dressmaking, Garment Cutting, and Drafting Patterns from Actual Measurement. Inside and outside finishing, plain and fancy sewing; all work scientifically taught. Special attention given to cutting and fitting.” Mrs. Wimbish's advertisement not only offers information about her skills as a dressmaker but also provides documentation of some of the classes offered for women in the dressmaking trade. Classes on the Brown System provided dressmakers with the opportunity to refine their skills in the measuring and fit of women's clothing, thus improving their expertise as dressmakers and thereby increasing their fame and their customer base. was the first black woman to earn her living as a model. Moorland-Spingarn Research CenterBut as the century progressed, the number of specialized dressmakers and seamstresses decreased as workers in the production of fashion goods shifted from creative artisans to factory workers. This shift did not always mean that black women worked the sewing machines; in many cases they worked in the pressing rooms, known for uncomfortable temperatures throughout the year. If black women were not in the pressing rooms, they might be employed to complete piecework at home, although this was a job largely reserved for white women.DesignersThroughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many black dressmakers made their mark in fashion history. One of the talents of a dressmaker was to design. Dressmakers kept abreast of the latest styles through fashion columns in local newspapers and women's magazines and through the magazines' fashion plates. They also visited fashionable places to watch fashionable women. All of these sources supplied them with the opportunity to design and create for their clients the newest looks in skirts, dresses, and suits. It was the dressmaker-as-designer who helped her customers select the colors and fabrics to create a garment that would compliment the customer's appearance.A few dressmakers achieved recognition through their skill in both dressmaking and design. Two of these were Elizabeth Keckley and Anne Lowe. Elizabeth Keckley, who learned to sew as a slave in Virginia, was well known for her skill with needle and fabric. Later in her life she designed and constructed the ball gown for Mary Todd Lincoln to wear to her husband's presidential inauguration. Black publications such as Black Enterprise, Ebony, and Essence documented the successful careers of many black women designers of the mid-to-late twentieth century. Probably the best known was Ann Lowe, a New York City dressmaker who designed Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding dress for her marriage to Senator John F. Kennedy in 1953. During the 1950s and 1960s, Lowe sold original dresses out of some of the most fashionable stores in the United States, including Montaldo's, Henri Bendel, Neiman-Marcus, and I. Magnin. She designed dresses for debutantes, society women, and movie stars. Many of these dresses included her signature trademark: handmade appliqué. She was so well known that in 1964 the Saturday Evening Post published a story about her. In 1966 Ebony magazine called her the “Dean of American Designers.”Like Anne Lowe, many black designers worked for themselves—designing originals and selling them in prestigious national and international department stores and boutiques; others gained prominence working on New York City's Seventh Avenue with some of the leading manufacturers of women's apparel. Many designers were self-taught; others studied design at the leading fashion colleges in the United States—Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design, both in New York City. Black women designers created fashions in a variety of categories: evening wear, knitwear, sportswear, and rainwear. Although many designers worked in the traditional area of women's apparel, others specialized in African- and Caribbean-inspired creations. During the late twentieth century many black women designers continued to create original designs for their clients. Although their names were not listed on the manufacturers' labels, Ebony and Essence magazines document the work of these women: Brenda Waite Bolling, Carol Donawa, Myra Everett, Gwen Domnie, Belinda Hughes, Edie Gladstone, Judi Jordan, Januwa Moga, Sandy Baker, Valerie Chisholm, Karlotta Nelson, and Marie Johnson. Most of the renowned black designers have been men, yet in the early twenty-first century Felicia Farrar quickly made her mark in the fashion industry in New York City. Her Web sites and Web pages attest to her expertise as an outstanding black woman designer.Much of the history of the contributions of African Americans to the fashion industry is documented at the Black Fashion Museum, which was established in 1979, in Harlem. The museum houses garments of leading African American designers as well as the everyday dress of extraordinary African Americans like Rosa Parks. Lois E. Alexander, the creator of the museum, also recorded this history in her book Blacks in the History of Fashion. The history of black women as designers and dressmakers continued into the early twenty-first century. From 1956 into the new millennium, the Ebony Fashion Fair brought contemporary fashion to towns and cities throughout the world. The fair showcased not only the leading Italian, French, British, and Japanese designers but also talented African American designers. The fashion industry continued to include many black designers, factory workers, fashion writers and editors, and models into the twenty-first century.ModelingJosephine Baker was perhaps the first black model of acclaim. Although not a model by trade, she was dressed and photographed by some of the leading French designers during the 1920s and 1930s. However, the first black woman to establish a thriving modeling career in Paris was Dorothea Towles. During the 1950s she modeled for Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, and Elsa Schiaparelli, among others. The next popular black model of acclaim was Naomi Sims. She began her career in 1969 with the cover of Life magazine. Sims went on to be one of the most celebrated models of her era, appearing on the covers and pages of Ladies' Home Journal, Essence, McCall's, and Vogue. modeling a bathing suit in 1992. PhotofestAnother in-demand model of the 1970s was Beverly Johnson, the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue, in August 1974. In the 1980s Johnson continued to make the cover of such national and international fashion magazines as French Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Essence. Other black models from that period include Pat Cleveland, Alva Chen, Billie Blair, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Smith, and Peggy Dillard. Smith and Dillard were among the first black women to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle. In the early twenty-first century, Tyra Banks and other black models graced the pages of national and international fashion publications. Many black women attempted to make their mark in the fashion industry as designers, models, and fashion writers and editors, though only a few made it through the ranks and onto labels or into the pages of fashion magazines. Nevertheless, these intelligent, creative, and stylish women continued to create a piece of the history of black women in America.See also Baker, Josephine; Free Black Women in the Antebellum North; Free Black Women in the Antebellum South; Keckley, Elizabeth; and Slave Narratives.
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