Since the Middle Ages, the prestigious work of tailoring—designing garment patterns and cutting expensive cloth—was deemed men’s work. Women were relegated to the subservient, lower-paying role of seamstress, which involved sewing together these swaths of fabric.
In 1675, French seamstresses organized a guild in order to collectively fight for the right to produce clothes themselves, kick-starting a long history of women pushing for equality in the fashion industry. More than three centuries later, that fight is far from over. A landmark 2018 report found that only 14% of major fashion brands are run by female executives.
Why has this inequity persisted through time? That’s the driving question behind a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Called Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion, the show highlights the female designers, artisans, and innovators who made their mark in fashion.
“While we’re interested in how women have contributed to fashion design, there are lots of other stories that emerge,” says Petra Slinkard, the museum’s curator of fashion and textiles who put together this exhibit.
She points out that for much of history, making clothes was one of the few socially acceptable professions for women. But female workers were often doing the most dangerous, back-breaking work. Two centuries after the French seamstresses formed a guild, 145 workers—most of them women—lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City.
Today, women make up 85% of the 40 million garment workers, which are some of the lowest-paid laborers in the world. “Since women’s job options are limited, women have been treated as expendable,” Slinkard says. “Employers also thought they could pay women less because they had husbands who could support them, which was not always true. We feature many single mothers in the exhibit.”
The exhibition at Peabody Essex showcases the work of dozens of women who have been largely ignored and forgotten by history but still managed to transform fashion and shape the clothes we continue to wear everyday. Here’s a look at five of them.
Born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, Keckley was forced to work for members of her owner’s family, suffering abuse and rape, which resulted in her becoming pregnant at 14. In her 30s, she began working in St. Louis for a family facing financial troubles. They relied on Keckley’s skill as a dressmaker to rise out of debt. Eventually, she was able to earn enough money to purchase her freedom.
She moved to Washington, D.C., where she received commissions from the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. When Mary Todd Lincoln arrived in the capital as First Lady to President Abraham Lincoln, she turned to Keckley, who eventually became the official White House dressmaker. In her later years, Keckley taught at the first Black-owned-and-operated college, Wilberforce University in Ohio, where she passed her skills to other young Black designers.
Lucy Duff Gordon
This British designer is known for developing the first “mannequin parades,” which laid the foundation for today’s fashion shows. In 1893, after divorcing her husband, she set up a shop called Maison Lucile in London. It featured lacy, body-hugging dresses inspired by lingerie, which stood out in an era when large skirts were still the norm.
In addition to her unique style, Gordon was also a brilliant marketer. She hired top interior decorators to showcase her looks, and held events where young women wore her garments in performances that included special music and lighting. Two decades later, she had stores in London, Paris, New York, and Chicago, where she dressed film stars, royalty, and wealthy socialites.
Lowe was born in rural Alabama in 1898, the great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman and a plantation owner. She learned to sew from her mother and grandmother, both of whom where seamstresses. In 1917, she applied to study at Taylor Design School in New York; it wasn’t until she arrived that her teachers realized she was Black. She was forced to attend classes in a room by herself, but her designs were so good, they ended up being used as models for future students.
Despite these challenges, Lowe opened a dress shop—the first Black-owned business on Madison Avenue—that became a major success. In her lifetime, she dressed many famous women, but her contributions often went unrecognized. She designed the dress Olivia de Havilland wore to accept her Academy Award for Best Actress for the 1946 film To Each His Own; but instead of Lowe’s name on the dress tag, the label read “Sonia Rosenberg,” the store that Lowe designed for.
Low also designed the iconic wedding dress Jackie Kennedy wore in 1952. While contemporaries like Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent became household names, Lowe was mostly forgotten. “She was never credited as she should have been for dressing Kennedy,” Slinkard says. “Because her contributions were not reported upon at the time, they have been largely left out of history.”
While women like Claire McCardell and Bonnie Cashin are known for developing the uniquely American style of designer sportswear in the 1920s, the lesser-known Trigère also played a crucial role in creating the look. Trigère, who was Jewish, left Paris in 1937 to escape the Nazis. She arrived in New York as a single mother, and went on to launch a garment business with her brother in the 1940s.
Trigère was an innovator when it came to clothing: She turned the jumpsuit into a high-fashion statement, created reversible outerwear, and designed a rhinestone bra top that was a huge hit. In 1961, she became the first designer to employ a black model, remaining steadfast in her decision even when she received racist threats.
Shaver, born in 1893, started her career as a teacher, but was fired because she attended a dance unchaperoned. She then took a job as a shop assistant for Lord & Taylor in New York; over the years, she worked her way up to become one of the most powerful retail executives in history. She created immersive window displays and fought for her employees to receive long maternity leave benefits.
In 1930, she used her influence to help launch the Fashion Group, a networking organization that helped support women in the industry. Two years later, she created the American Look program, which championed a uniquely American aesthetic and highlighted the work of relatively unknown designers. In 1945, she became the president of Lord & Taylor, earning the highest salary of any American woman at the time.