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Fashioning America

African American Designers and Dressmakers

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African American Designers and Dressmakers at Marble House has closed.

Fashion is a powerful tool used to signal wealth and status. But who were the dressmakers skillfully creating the garments for privileged Newporters? Theresa Guzmán Stokes, President of 1696 Heritage Group and Executive Director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, will present the life and history of dressmaker Mary Dickerson (1830-1914). Dickerson owned a “Fashionable Dressmaking Establishment” located off Bellevue Avenue and created dresses for the prominent people of Newport during the Gilded Age. She also established the first federation of African American Women’s Clubs in Rhode Island. Elaine Nichols, Supervisory Curator of Culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, will join us to discuss the life and work of Ann Lowe (1898-1981), one of America’s most significant designers. Lowe created the bridal gown and bridal party dresses for the Newport wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy in 1953, although she was not credited for her work at the time. Ms. Nichols and Ms. Stokes will discuss the prejudices that Dickerson and Lowe faced and why it is important to remember their valuable contributions to fashion and history.


Theresa Guzmán Stokes is a writer, mother, historian, community activist, editor, feminist, US military veteran, and storyteller who inspires and illuminates the complex and woven narratives of African Heritage, Latin American and Jewish Diasporic histories. Utilizing the tools of history, genealogy and cultural preservation, the Guatemalan-heritage Stokes is fiercely committed to bringing to light the untold stories of the state of Rhode Island. Ms. Stokes is an innovative leader and creator with two decades of service to causes, organizations and people that are committed to moving the needle on empowering communities of color, women and youth. After service in the United States Navy, Stokes centered her professional work on creatively presenting deeply researched stories and projects on the Ocean State and its historic roots. She has participated in and supervised dozens of historic preservations, genealogical and cultural resource investigations throughout New England and Virginia. She is president and founder of 1696 Heritage Group, a historical consulting firm dedicated to helping persons and institutions of color to increase their knowledge and access to the light of truth of their unique American heritage. Stokes is also the founder of Historical Writers of America, a non-profit organization whose mission is to celebrate, support and connect ALL historical writers. Ms. Stokes’ legacy work is as Executive Director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society (RIBHS), the oldest African Heritage society in the United States.

Elaine Nichols is the Supervisory Curator of Culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the curator responsible for the museum’s collection of dress, fashion, textiles, dolls, toys and games. She has also served as the project curator for the Civil Rights History Project, a collaboration with the Library of Congress that collected oral histories of more than 100 grassroots activists, supporters, and national leaders who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to coming to the NMAAHC, Nichols worked at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia as a curator of history. She helped to build its collections related to African Americans and women from the Palmetto State. Ms. Nichols has a Master’s of Art in Public Service Archaeology from the University of South Carolina and a Master’s of Art in Social Administration and Planning from Case Western Reserve University.

Event thumbnail photo credit: Executive Board Members of the Women’s League of Newport, RI. Mary Dickerson is center, back row. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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