HOW SOFT THE LINING
by Kirsten Greenidge
The decades long friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, are explored in this play about female friendship, and the line between black and white.
THE WORLD OF THE PLAY
The women of the play bond over the shared love of dresses and fashion. Historically, Mary Todd Lincoln was known for having bold clothing choices thanks to her inventive dressmaker and companion Elizabeth Keckley. Lincoln used her clothing as a marker of intellect, femininity, and high fashion that went against the grain of what was considered standard. Below are images from Godey's Lady's book chronicling the world of fashion in Antebellum & Civil War America.
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women of the era
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Mary Todd Lincoln
"In grief, words are poor consolation - silence & agonizing tears are all that is left the sufferer." Letter to her sister, Elizabeth Todd Edwards, March 19, 1877.
"I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity. The very fact of having grown up in the West, subjects me to more searching observation. To keep up appearances, I must have money -- more than Mr. Lincoln can spare for me. He is too honest to make a penny outside of his salary; consequently I had, and still have, no alternative but to run in debt." Conversation with Elizabeth Keckley in the summer of 1864.
Mary Todd Lincoln in the news:
“Mrs. Lincoln was already seated to receive her guests. She is of the middle age and height, of a plumpness degenerating to the embonpoint natural to her years; her features are plain, her nose and mouth of an ordinary type, and her manners and appearance homely, stiffened, however, by the consciousness that her position requires her to be something more than plain Mrs. Lincoln, the wife of the Illinois lawyer; she is profuse in the introduction of the word ‘sir’ in every sentence, which is now almost an Americanism confined to certain classes, although it was once as common in England. Her dress I shall not attempt to describe, though it was very gorgeous and highly coloured. She handled a fan with much energy, displaying a round, well-proportioned arm, and was adorned with some simple jewelery. She struck me as being desirous of making herself agreeable, and I own I was agreeably disappointed, as the Secessionist ladies at Washington had been amusing themselves by anecdotes which could scarcely have been founded on fact.1”
- From London Times, William Howard Russel
Historian Carol Faulkner wrote: “Throughout her memoir, Keckley held up free African Americans as models of both independence and charity. Her catalogue of contributors to the Contraband Relief Society listed people of high status, accomplishment, and success.” Faulkner noted “The one thing she gained from slavery was ‘the important lesson of self-reliance.’ Though Keckley rejected the presumption of black dependence, she did acknowledge that not all African Americans shared her self-reliance. During the war, she encountered former slaves who had learned the same lessons, but for others, she judged, ‘dependence had become a part of their second nature, and independence brought with it the cares and vexations of poverty.’”6
Historian Catherine Clinton noted: “Keckly rented rooms from Walker Lewis, a leading Washington caterer. She lived in and maintained her dressmaking establishment on Twelfth Street.”
Mrs. Keckley later served as a sewing instructor at Wilberforce University. Her generosity toward the black college injured her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln in 1868 a few months before the rupture caused by her memoirs. Mrs. Keckley had given to Wilberforce the clothes that Mrs. Lincoln had worn on the night her husband was assassinated. Wilberforce provided them for European tour.
“We who are crushed to earth with heavy chains, who travel a weary, rugged, thorny road, groping through midnight darkness on earth, earn our right to enjoy the sunshine in the great hereafter. At the grave, at least, we should be permitted to lay our burdens down, that a new world, a world of brightness, may open to us. The light that is denied us here should grow into a flood of effulgence beyond the dark, mysterious shadows of death.” - Elizabeth Keckley
“For an act may be wrong judged purely by itself, but when the motive that prompted the act is understood, it is construed differently. I lay it down as an axiom, that only that is criminal in the sight of God where crime is mediated.” - Elizabeth Keckley