Connected \\ March 30, 2020

Five history-making women designers

To function in a complicated world calls for uncomplicated clothes.

― Bonnie Cashin

As women’s history month draws to a close I want to take a moment to pay respect to women artists by calling your attention to a few, soon to be highlighted in PEM’s upcoming exhibition Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion. At the start of the month, the National Museum of Women in the Arts put out a call for museums, galleries and other cultural institutions to share art and information about artists who explore key social issues including gender equity, immigration, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, climate change and more.

Faded off white fabric is pinned by 5 yellow headed sewing pins to a beige fabric form

Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

This March is particularly important because 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the Constitution. The amendment granted some women the right to vote and the historic milestone provides us occasion to think about the ways in which women — including women in fashion and art — have pursued equity and greater opportunity.

Here are a few pioneering women who established a variety of executive and creative roles for themselves as they pushed for equality in life and business. They have made significant inroads in the evolving fashion industry and laid a forward path for a future generation of designers.

A sepia toned image of Elizabeth Keckley, standing next to draped fabric wearing a dress

Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Archives.

Elizabeth Keckley

Born into slavery, Elizabeth Keckley relied on her skills as a dressmaker to purchase freedom for her and her son before setting up her own shop in Washington, D.C. She designed clothing for a number of Washington’s social and political elite, but rose to the highest rank in American fashion when she became the dressmaker and personal dresser for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley made a number of gowns for Mrs. Lincoln, one of which can be viewed at the National Museum of American History.

Keckley also founded the Ladies' Freedmen and Soldiers Relief Association, which provided food, shelter and support to recently freed people and sick and wounded soldiers. She eventually left the East Coast to teach fashion at Wilberforce University in Ohio, the nation’s first institution established, owned and operated by black leaders. There, she lifted up the next generation of black women designers.

Maria Theresa Baldwin Hollander

Based in Boston, Maria Theresa Baldwin Hollander charted an independent course. She founded a shop specializing in dressmaking and children's wear at a time when a woman’s income and property usually belonged to her husband. She even advertised under her own name, an act nearly unheard of in her time. By the 1870s her business consolidated as L. P. Hollander & Company and grew to become a force in late 19th century retail. Hollander’s papers are housed at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe. They indicate that Hollander was also connected with prominent figures in the suffragette and antislavery movements.

Blue dress made of silk with cotton lace neck and cuffs, made by Maria Theresa Baldwin Hollander

Maria Theresa Baldwin Hollander (1812–1885, United States), Founder, dress, 1875–85. Silk and cotton. For L. P. Hollander & Company, Boston. PEM gift of Rebecca Haskell for the Chestnut Street Associates, 1985, 136890. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photos by Bob Packert/PEM.

A coatdress with wide whit cuffs and plaid pattern of gold, black and beige

Bonnie Cashin (1915–2000, United States), Coatdress, about 1967. Wool, leather, cotton, silk, and metal. For Sills & Co. PEM gift of Susanna B. Weld, 2000, 138030. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photos by Bob Packert/PEM.

Bonnie Cashin

Bonnie Cashin created clean, refined designs for active modern women. Opening Bonnie Cashin Designs in 1952, she made clothes that encouraged movement, comfort and practicality. She never licensed her name and was one of the first women to design on a freelance basis. She worked for a number of companies, including Coach, and spread her design paradigms across brands. Cashin pioneered the implementation of unusual yet practical closures, such as metal toggles and dog leash clips, into her designs. Every Coach purse with a turn-key closure is a Cashin-originated design.

A mannequin wearing a straight black dress that points out at the knees and then points back in towards the lower legs

Rei Kawakubo (Born 1942, Japan), Dress, 1970–2014. Wool and metal. For Comme des Garçons. PEM gift of Lauren Leja, 2014.45.48. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

Rei Kawakubo

Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo is widely recognized by industry professionals and the fashion press as the most groundbreaking and nonconformist designer of the last 50 years. Through her company, Comme des Garçons, meaning “like the boys,” she produces collections that upend preconceptions about the relationship of garments to the body and traditional ideals of beauty. She is disinterested in conventional silhouettes and standing perceptions of the limitations of the female form.

Woman wearing bright orange fabric long dressstanding outside by a tree with water in the background

Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), For J. Okuma, Dress, 2018, Museum Purchase, made possible by the Anna Pingree Phillips Acquisition Fund, 2020. 2020.4.1. Courtesy of Jamie Okuma. Photo by Cameron Linton. Model: Corel Taylor.

Jamie Okuma

Jamie Okuma’s brand J. Okuma blends art and fashion in new, thought-provoking ways and showcases the pride, diversity and complexity of Native women. Sustainability in fashion design is a global concern and a growing number of women designers are challenging outdated systems, employing new textile technologies and rethinking how we buy and consume by promoting channels that are less harmful to our shared ecosystem. Okuma made this dress of sustainably sourced silk with a no-waste ethos in mind. She uses the entire yardage of fabric from end to end to produce the look.

Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

The PEM staff wishes everyone health, safety and calm during the COVID-19 shutdown. Museums provide light and inspiration during challenging times. We will be creative in maintaining PEM’s relationship with you in this time of crisis. We look forward to welcoming you back to the museum when the public health crisis has subsided. For more information and updates, please visit and keep in touch through our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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