Kathleen Johnson whirls, displaying a hand-painted, appliqued blouse designed by local seamstress Cindy Williams. A small circle of women gathers around Johnson in the back of Dupont Circle’s Toast and Strawberries boutique, cooing approvingly. In the foyer, another group listens as shop owner Rosemary Reed Miller describes the historical significance of the cream-colored Ann Lowe debutante dress hanging in the foyer.
These impromptu gatherings are offshoots of a casual fashion show in celebration of Reed Miller’s book, Threads of Time, The Fabric of History, a celebration of the history of African-American dressmaking. The event is also a de facto reunion: “There’s staff members here that I haven’t seen in 20 years,” says Reed Miller’s daughter, Sabrina Ford.
“If I owned a restaurant, I would have done something about the history of chefs,” says Reed Miller. But she runs a clothing store, so for the past 18 years, she’s been mounting in-store shows that combine fashion with historical perspective. “We did programs that were relevant for Black History Month and Women in History Month. After the shows, people would say, ‘That was interesting. I’d like to tell my daughter.’”
Two years ago, inspired by these requests and using the slides and scripts from her fashion shows as a starting point, Reed Miller began to seek out the stories of designers she hadn’t yet featured in her in-store events. Suggestions often came from friends: Reed Miller learned about Margaret Hagen, a pioneering 19th-century designer and entrepreneur, from a neighbor who happened to be Hagen’s distant relative.
The 16 profiles in Threads of Time both document the achievements and champion the artistry of African-American designers. Reed Miller’s subjects range from the little-known Hagen to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who was riding the bus home from her job as a seamstress when she famously refused to give up her seat. She also highlights the influence of two black dressmakers on the executive branch with profiles of Elizabeth Keckley, designer to and treasured confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, and Lowe, the Alabama-born society designer who made Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. The book’s ample footnoting, which explains how the lives of these African-American designers converged with those of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, among others, hints at its target audience.
“I would like the book to be used in high schools and colleges,” Reed Miller explains. “I thought people had less and less of a grasp on history. The last time I did a show, a young man didn’t know what an abolitionist was. I’m trying to get down a lot of people’s throats.”
Reed Miller graduated from Temple University with a degree in history, but her interest in the arts, and dressmaking in particular, has deeper roots—both her mother, an art teacher, and her grandmother had a passion for sewing. After several years as a journalist, she began designing accessories for department stores. In 1968, she opened her own store, Toast and Strawberries, which was one of the first black-owned businesses in Dupont Circle.
In addition to the sketches of designers from the abolitionist 1850s and from the civil rights era—her two principal periods of interest—Reed Miller profiles eight contemporary designers. “These women will become history,” says Ford. Helen Preston Wallace, a clothing designer from D.C., agrees. “This is a window into the history and importance of dressmaking, but usually when the accounts are done the people are deceased,” she says. “This is still living.” —Josh Levin