Elizabeth Keckley’s Influence on American Fashion and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Met Gala Dress


Getty / Kevin Mazur/MG22

Hopefully, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Met Gala dress is only a start to a wider appreciation of Keckley’s work.

In the words of John Grimsley, who inherited Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was a “seamstress of exceptional ability,” but her success in a time of extreme oppression due to her ability to create according to the needs of a nation shows that she was much more than that. 

At the 2022 Met Gala, Sarah Jessica Parker wore a dress inspired by one of Elizabeth Keckley’s designs to pay tribute to the White House designer, who worked during the 1860s. This inspiration is clear in the silhouette of the dress, which reflects the gigantic crinoline trend of the time. Parker’s tribute is well-deserved. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was revolutionary in fashion and in history.

Mary Lincoln’s purple velvet skirt made by Elizabeth Keckley. (Smithsonian Institute)
Side view of Mary Lincoln’s skirt. (Smithsonian Institution)

Keckley was born enslaved in Virginia and worked there until she was brought to St. Louis as an adult. During her childhood, her mother had taught her how to make dresses, and she began work as a seamstress there. Elizabeth grew a reputation among the high society for her skill, and her proficiency and popularity for sewing and dressmaking allowed her to buy her freedom and move to Washington DC. 

Not only was Elizabeth Keckley an accomplished seamstress, but she was also a keen businesswoman. She was very popular in St. Louis but became even more so in DC. Politicians wanted their wives to be fashionable at each event they went to, and in the capital of the United States, there would be many. 

Even the First Lady required her services. Mary Todd Lincoln would commission 15 to 16 dresses from Keckley each year, and the two developed a close relationship. Elizabeth Keckley first worked for Mrs. Lincoln during the American Civil War, a time when the First Lady’s appearance would be heavily scrutinized. She had to look good to show confidence and strength in the Union, but if she dressed too lavishly, it would make it seem like the Washington elite failed to acknowledge the sacrifices people across the nation were making for the war.

Mary Lincoln in a gown made by Keckley. (Mathew Brady)

Her prosperity in Washington allowed her to support Black Americans after emancipation and the end of the Civil War. She also wrote a book about behind-the-scenes life at the White House.

Keckley posing in an undated photo. (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Manuscript Division Howard University, Washington, DC)


During the American Civil War, there was a Black woman working in the White House, making sure that the First Lady looked the part — whatever the part called for at the time. Fashion may seem like a frivolous thing, but it was integral in the appearance of the Union and could pack incredible meaning behind it. Elizabeth Keckley’s achievements were essential in establishing Mary Todd Lincoln’s reputation, and she should be remembered for her meaningful and masterful work. Hopefully this Met Gala dress is only a start to a wider appreciation of Keckley’s work.  

Learn More:

From Slavery to the White House: The Extraordinary Life of Elizabeth Keckly

Mary Lincoln’s Dress | Smithsonian Institution

by Lucy DeMeo ’24, Assistant Arts and Entertainment Editor