Seams that Bind

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln

By Lynda Jones
(National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, 2009, $18.99)

So often, biographies overlook ordinary interactions, especially those between people of different stations. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker celebrates the everyday life and the unlikely friendship of two remarkable women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, her African-American dressmaker.

The women’s very different backgrounds and personalities made their later relationship all the more improbable. Mary Todd grew up in a wealthy, slave-owning Kentucky family. For the first thirty-seven years of her life, Elizabeth Keckley was a slave in Virginia. Mary was temperamental and volatile, while Elizabeth was patient and self-contained. However, both were determined women who rebelled against their circumstances: Mary defied her family to become an outspoken abolitionist and marry an impoverished lawyer, while Elizabeth toiled long hours as a seamstress to buy her freedom.

 In 1861, soon after Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, Mary hired Elizabeth as her dressmaker. Through the Lincoln presidency, Elizabeth’s artistry made the First Lady a trendsetter. But Elizabeth did more than create low-cut ball gowns. She listened to her problems, offered reassurance, and consoled Mary when she lost her son to typhoid. In return, Mary’s patronage made Elizabeth the most sought after dressmaker in Washington – for a time. Eventually, Mary’s emotional demands undermined both Elizabeth’s career and their friendship.

As author Lynda Jones weaves together the women’s stories, she doesn’t shrink from the truth. In her matter-of-fact prose, she describes the cruelties of slavery Elizabeth Keckley faced, including beatings, rape, and separation from family members. She also paints a balanced picture of Mary Todd Lincoln: intelligent and warm-hearted, but often demanding and wrong-headed. In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Jones creates a nuanced portrait of two strong women and their unusual friendship. The book is also a meditation on friendship’s possibilities and disappointments.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

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