Mary Lincoln’s purple velvet skirt with daytime bodice is believed to have been made by African American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly. The first lady wore the gown during the Washington winter social season in 1861–62. Both pieces are piped with white satin, and the bodice is trimmed with mother-of pearl buttons. An evening bodice was included with the ensemble. The lace collar is of the period, but not original to the dress.
After Abraham Lincoln’s death, Mary went into mourning and remained in widow’s clothes until her own death in 1882. She gave some of her White House finery to family members. Her cousin, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, received this purple velvet ensemble. In 1916 Grimsley’s son, John, sold the ensemble to Mrs. Julian James for the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Collection.
John Grimsley attributed this dress to a “seamstress of exceptional ability” who “made nearly all of Mrs. Lincoln’s gowns.” Although he mistook her name as “Ann,” he most likely was referring to Elizabeth Keckly.
The Civil War made it particularly important that the ceremonial functions of the administration appear dignified and competent. This public image helped calm domestic critics and reassure foreign governments, especially England and France, which were being courted by the Confederacy. The Lincolns faced the challenge of maintaining proper decorum without appearing self-indulgent when so many were sacrificing so much. Their background made this task even more difficult, as they had to overcome eastern stereotypes of “uncultured” westerners.
Mary Lincoln took her role as first lady very seriously. Some newspapers portrayed her as “the republican queen,” elegant and admirable at public occasions. Others criticized her for conspicuous consumption in time of war and sacrifice. Although she came from a genteel Kentucky family, she was the wife of “the rail splitter,” and many people expected her to embarrass the nation with uncouth western manners.