The velvet opera coat was stretched out on a bed of archival paper and tucked into a person-size box that resembled a humble coffin. A clutch of Smithsonian curators and restoration experts gently lifted it — like scholarly pallbearers with white gloved hands and keen eyes for precision — onto an examination table for loving inspection.
The coat, estimated to be from the early 1900s and possibly more than 100 years old, was exquisitely crafted of sapphire blue velvet with what looked to be soutache embroidery in a swirling pattern of fern leaves. The decoration had long ago faded into a delicate shade of pale brown, but its original extravagance remained evident. The trumpet-shaped sleeves are trimmed in fur, the origin of which remains unknown until experts from the Museum of Natural History have spoken. It's easy to imagine a pampered and cultured lady wrapped in this coat for an evening of high art.
The garment was designed and created by its onetime owner, Louvenia Price. Price is notable for what she is not. She is not an upper-class lady for whom "help" was always a noun and never a verb. Price was a former slave. Which makes her coat, with its aura of prideful elegance, an especially audacious statement.
Where was a former slave going in a regal velvet opera coat? Who, pray tell, did she think she was?
The coat is part of a treasure-trove of garments designed and worn by African Americans over the course of generations that was donated in 2007 to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by Joyce Bailey. Her mother, Lois Alexander Lane, founded, curated and kept on life support for almost 30 years the Black Fashion Museum. The modest monument to African American creativity first opened its doors in 1979 in an unremarkable Harlem brownstone. In 1994, it relocated to Washington. And among its most resonant artifacts are garments created by slaves, by famed dressmakers Ann Lowe and Rosa Parks, contemporary designers Stephen Burrows and Geoffrey Holder and countless anonymous seamstresses. Black history — American history — stitched out of cotton and lace.