Whatever our occupation or interest in life, inspiration can help us do better, reach higher, and achieve more. Where do you look for your inspiration? Many people turn to nature. In fact, I know of an amazingly talented knitwear designer who takes photographs of various nature scenes around her native Scotland and then painstakingly matches a dozen or more yarns to the different colors in the picture. She then combines the colors into remarkable sweaters. The colors in the sweaters work beautifully together because they worked first in nature. It is an interesting concept.
In designing dresses evocative of the Civil War era, inspiration can come from museums, photographs, paintings, and memoirs. The Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois has a wonderful exhibit of reproductions of gowns worn by Mrs. Lincoln and Washington socialites in 1861. They give a feel for color, style, proportion, and pattern, among other things. One gown is cream, with a cascade of roses draping down over the shoulder, Another is a soft rose color accented with white ribbons. There is a sage green gown, and also a cream colored gown with a deep red ruffled underskirt. The center piece of the exhibit is a white gown with all-over sprays of lavender flowers and a deep lace ruffle around the neckline.
Many gowns are attributed to Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, or mantua-maker, as seamstresses were referred to at the time, a woman named Elizabeth Keckley. The National Museum of American History has a beautiful purple velvet ensemble believed to have been made by Ms. Keckley.
Elizabeth started out life as a slave but managed eventually to buy her freedom. She settled in Washington, DC, and began sewing for many of the wives of the politicians in the city. She was described as an incredible businesswoman, also known for her beauty.
After being introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln, she began working almost exclusively for her. In her memoir Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House, she describes one evening in particular when she helped Mrs. Lincoln dress for an official function. Several of Mrs. Lincoln’s friends were with her at the time. Mrs. Keckley describes the various ladies and dresses thus: “Mrs. Lincoln looked elegant in her rose-colored moire-antique. She wore a pearl necklace, pearl earrings, pearl bracelets, and red roses in her hair. Mrs. Baker was dressed in lemon-colored silk; Mrs. Kellogg in a drab silk, ashes of rose; Mrs. Edwards in a brown and black silk; Miss Edwards in crimson, and Mrs. Grimsley in blue watered silk.”
Those few sentences give a modern dress-designer trying to create a dress inspired by another era a lot to think about! Personally, I like to absorb inspiration from solid sources such as Mrs. Keckley and then let it roll around in the back of my mind while I turn to mundane tasks like pulling weeds in the garden or even doing the dishes. Then, when I enter the studio, I try and let that inspiration lead me along as I begin to combine fabrics, styles, and trims. The process is such a pleasant one. Whatever your creative needs and sources for inspiration, I hope the process is for you, too. And I hope you like the results that you find on our “New Dresses” page.
Here’s to inspiration, whatever its form, and to the results!