Like most twentieth century kids turned twenty-first century adults, I rarely consult hard copies of encyclopedias or dictionaries either. I do, however, reflect on the experience of using these reference tools fondly especially as a researcher today. So I was excited to come across Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia in a secondhand book store.
“The Loom Room”: The Role of Enslaved Black Women in the Early Fashion Industry
I was intrigued by the entry on Black women in the fashion industry written by Patricia Hunt-Hurst, a dress and fashion historian at the University of Georgia. Hunt-Hurst writes that the fashion industry emerged in the U.S. during the 19th century. Some free Black women worked as dressmakers for Black and White clients, but most Black women who worked with cloth and textiles at that time did so as slaves.
Enslaved Black women picked the cotton and other raw materials for cloth, did needlework for plantation owner’s households, or worked as the seamstress and dressmakers. Some plantations had a separate “loom room” where these women worked. Enslaved women also used dyes, weavers, spinners and other tools to produce textiles. Most enslaved women who did create clothing did so for other enslaved persons. Sometimes they also created clothing for the families of plantation owners.
The Needle Trade: Black Women in the Fashion Industry After Slavery
Black women in the fashion industry entered the needle trade (seamstress, dressmaker, tailor) after slavery. Years of forced unpaid labor meant that immigrants and white women outnumbered Black women. However, some cities provided Black women fashion entrepreneurs opportunities to gain a wide range of skills and specialties.
Racial discrimination prevented Black women fashion entrepreneurs from having full access to the industry. However, Black newspapers and magazines provided outlets for these women to advertise and feature their work. Additionally, Black colleges and universities provided courses in these fields. As a result, dressmaking was considered one of the top twenty-seven occupations for Black women in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.
As the twentieth century progressed, however, makers of clothing increasingly relied on sewing machines and industrial tools to produce clothes. Black women who worked in textile and clothing factories usually worked in the pressing room. Otherwise, they had to find piecemeal work to do at home.
The History of Designing and Modeling Among Black Women in the U.S.
Black dressmakers kept up with the latest fashions through fashion and women’s magazines. Some of them attended elite fashion schools like the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design. Black women designers usually worked for themselves and sold their goods to department stores and boutiques.
Some gained a reputation for their work including Elizabeth Keckley and Anne Lowe. According to Hunt-Hurst, Elizabeth Keckley learned to sew while enslaved in Virginia and later in life created the ball gown Mary Todd Lincoln wore to her husband’s presidential inauguration. Anne Lowe also did work for a first lady when she designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. Black-owned magazines documented the careers of these and other Black women designers in the fashion industry.
Black women made progress in the field of modeling during the twentieth century as well. Josephine Baker posed for some of the leading designers in France during the 1920s and 1930s. Another Black woman wouldn’t reach Josephine Baker’s level of acclaim until Naomi Sims in 1969. More Black women gained notice in the modeling industry from the 1970s onward including Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks.
Unless otherwise stated, this essay summarizes Patricia Hunt-Hurst‘s entry ‘Fashion Industry’ in the Second Edition of Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia