There’s been much discussion this past year about dresses.
Seven years ago, a trip to Hillsborough for a grouping of magazine features (search our archives for “Under the Hillsborough Sun,” May 2014) started me reading about the dressmaker of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of one of my three favorite presidents.
Just west of the Hillsborough Museum was a house with a placard that said Mrs. Lincoln’s dress designer, Elizabeth Keckley, had been a slave there before being taken to Missouri. There, supporting the family that owned her as a dressmaker, she still managed to earn enough to purchase her freedom and that of her son.
Mrs. Keckley’s book, The Story of Elizabeth Keckley, describes her spectacular rise from slavery to become one of the most sought-after Washington dressmakers of the 18th century.
You will find samples of Keckley’s dresses created for Lincoln at the Smithsonian in Washington. Mrs. Lincoln was quite fashionable, and these bell-shaped dresses were all the rage in America; north, south, east and west.
I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the young women of this area in replicas of these type of gowns every year during our beloved Azalea Festival. In late 2019, my team sent me to dressmaker Debbie Scheu and, after an enormous amount of urging, I donned one of her bell-shaped dresses.
I can confirm what you will read in Christine Gonzalez’s article: stepping into one of these replica dresses is an adventure and once installed in it, it brings a broad smile to your face. There was zero chance I was going to be photographed in it, but I did quite enjoy my few minutes in front of the mirror. What’s not to love about the hats and gloves, and parasols?
The Azalea Festival has always been a much needed economic driver for the area and that’s actually why it was created. Businesses small to large (not to mention the nonprofits who benefit from the proceeds) depend on the flow of money generated by those who attend the weeklong celebration with all its traditions.
But I trust you will humor me in my executive decision — even though I am not yet back to work — to take a fond walk down memory lane while acknowledging the magnificent work of the talented, present-day dressmakers.
Don’t miss this year’s fine kitchens, the drive down scenic byways — something I had a chance to do in March — as well as our recipes for tasty smoked meats.
Have a blessed and happy Holy Week.