Exclusive Interview with Rosemary Reed
Michelle Obama, who just began her reign as the First Lady has fashionistas intrigued, her choices are often well analyzed and studied — she even has a blog devoted to her clothing choices. Not since Jackie Kennedy Onassis, has a First Lady (in my opinion) made such an impact on fashion. Ms. Onassis wedding dress from her marriage to John F. Kennedy has made such an impact as has been the described as on the most iconic wedding dress of this century. Cool, right? The dress was designed by Ann Lowe an African American designer and it feels like we’ve come full circle.
All of these has got us thinking about the impact of women of color on fashion and we reached out to Rosamary E. Reed who wrote a book about African American designers. The book, “The Threads Of Time, The Fabric Of History: Profiles Of African American Dressmakers And Designers From 1850 To The Present,” available at amazon.com. We asked Ms. Reed take on Michelle Obama, Jackie Kennedy, current state of fashion and of course her book among other fun topics. Ms. Reed, is quite an interesting person and here’s our interview with her.
TFR: What’s inspired you to write this book?
RR: Even though I had a small boutique, Toast and Strawberries,selling jewelry and accessories, I found I didn’t know anything about Black designers of the past.
What was the journey to create this book like?
Finding information was easy at first. (I placed a call)to Howard University’s library. (The librarians) gave me good name suggestions. Then (another)to our local library. It had a Washington, DC directory from 1860 which listed women who were dressmakers, etc.
2a. Why do you mean when you say ‘easy at first?’
a. After (researching)the first round of designers from the libraries, I found it difficult to locate other women who did sewing as a business in various cities. I had to ask, use either memories of descendant or from older women,and do research to ascertain the details.
While writing this book which designer story was the most inspiring to you?
Elizabeth Gardner. She came from a free NYC-Boston family. She and her mother sewed so well that they donated $200-600 a year to their church. Also, she helped young women in her area to get better jobs. She also wrote to the elders in her church complaining about their not valuing the help and guidance of the women.
Like many of my favorite Black designers, all overcame so many obstacles.
Out of the designers that you featured in your book which do you think would have had the biggest impact in fashion if her race was not an issue or she had been born in a different time?
Ann Lowe would be that person. She actually felt that she was a world class designer. But her story made me feel a sadness– I felt as if all these women would have done better after 1980. Though, what they accomplished was amazing.
In my research of Ann Lowe, I’ve come across some conflicting information in regards to Jackie Kennedy Onassis feelings about the dress. Some scholars suggest the Former First Lady hated the dress and only choose the dress in order to please her mother and future husband while others suggest she loved it and choose it herself. What’s your take?
My research also said that Jackie wanted a plain Vera Wang-Audrey Hepburn type of dress. Father [Joe] Kennedy and her mother, Janet, wanted a traditional dress. Jackie was only 22 years old. She had little to say about her wedding.
Really? This makes me sad that she didn’t choose the dress her self. It was a gorgeous dress. Do you think she would have chosen it later in life on her own?
Jackie, again, was a clothes horse. Simplicity, she felt, was more her style. Vera Wang is doing a dress that actually looks like the Lowe wedding dress with ruffles and detail. Both details made a come back in today’s wedding dresses.
How did Jackie Onassis come across Ann Lowe?
Ann did designs for upper class women, and did work for Jackie’s mother. Ann also did prom and other dresses for Jackie and her sisters.
We now have an African American woman in the White House the fabulous Michelle Obama- What do you think Michelle Obama legacy will be to American Fashion?
(Michelle)Obama is interesting because she mixes casual and designer clothes. She’s current and well built. (She has) a good firmness. I think she, as a lawyer, might feel that fashion is not serious’ enough for her talents.
That’s interesting. What makes you say this?
The 1970s were a time of black pride ethnocentricity. Today The Obamas seem to want to be neutral. They have a lot of white staff who want them to be post-racial and hide the fact that they are black. This antagonizes so many Americans and even people of color in the White House. It’s terrible!
Do you think her her impact will ever equal that of Jackie Kennedy Onassis?
Time will tell. But Jackie really was a real clothes hound.’ She bought (clothes) all the time.
What did you make of Michelle Obama NOT choosing a designer of AA for the “big” moments?
Both of Obamastry to be so neutral’ The First Lady’s store contacts in Chicago are white. She didn’t come up in the period of ‘buy black’- an experience possibly shared her mother and the mothers of Michelle’s friends.
Can you tell us about Elizabeth Keckley? She designed a dress for Mary Lincoln, right? Her story is very interesting.
Keckley also felt that she was a first class dressmaker. Although he didn’t identify with tag designers, she was extremely well trained. She was totally committed to building a good business. She had staff and a (working)system. I liked and admired Keckley because she wrote a book,a concrete item which could be accessed by anyone. Her story is/was so strong as well asher comments about the life in the White House,Lincoln, the war, Washington, DC. (Her accounts) are extraordinary.
Tell us about Hazel Blackman. Her story is also interesting.
Hazel also had a business focus, her niche was using African fabrics. This worked so well when the ‘Black is Beautiful’ campaign came out, but she sold to white and black alike.
All of the women I found had wonderful confidence in their talents. Many of them were not married. Tthey were therefore unfettered by children, obligations, and the need to be supportive to men, sublimating their lives and businesses orand having to be mindful of what society would expect of themor limit them.
(Why you think her niche was successful among the white community?)
African fabrics were popular in the young white community, well traveled people, as well as in the Black community.
With some many stories and designers which one designers story has the most impact on you personally?
Ann Lowe and Keckley are strong stories. Perseverance, patience and the skill to deal with the world.
Any other designer you want to highlight?
I am looking for designers from the mid-west south, and west to profile. Up to the 1950s,there were women who had small businesses selling to either their Black clientèle or to a wider group.
I am interested in women owning their own businesses and controlling their destinies.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a follow up book?
I have two ideas. (First, I can write) another edition about women, finding more women from the West and the South. A 4th edition.
Another idea is to write a similar book on tailors though I am not sure of reader interest. There are so many stories in the and of the black community to document and to expose..
I tried not only to just profile the ladies,but also note the times that they lived in. When I profiled the dressmaker from Tulsa, I also mentioned the 1921 Tulsa riot.