Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) was America’s first great female entrepreneur. Her rags-to-riches story still mesmerizes: born Sarah Breedlove, the daughter of slaves, she built a business empire by developing and marketing a line of hair care products for African American women. (She did not invent the hot comb or chemical straighteners, as is commonly believed; her formulas were designed to cleanse and condition the hair.) By 1917 the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was the largest black-owned business in the United States, providing career opportunities for thousands of African American women. Madam Walker herself may have been the first American woman of any race to become a self-made millionaire.

She was also a pioneering philanthropist, donating enormous sums to the NAACP, Tuskegee Institute, YMCA, YWCA, and Bethune-Cookman College. Her commitment to the community was matched only by her passion for empowering women to become financially self-sufficient. In her will she stipulated that the president of the Walker company must always be a female.

Our costume is based on the photographs of Madam Walker in elegant daytime attire. The pieces we suggest, from left to right:

1. Ladies’ Edwardian suit in navy. Also available here. This is a real two-piece suit of quality construction, not a cheapo costume item. It comes in three different colors; we chose the navy, which has ivory trim. The blouse is not included.
2. Ivory satin “Josephine” blouse. This superb blouse has a stand-up collar, four-button cuffs, and elegant Venetian lace down the front. It looks wonderful with the Edwardian suit.
3. Lavender and ivory touring hat. This is a beautiful hat with gorgeous feathers and lace, but you can save money by trimming a hat yourself. It’s not difficult if you’re at all creative or handy. Just get a basic straw hat and go to your local crafts store. Pick out some silk flowers, feathers, and ribbon that look good together, plus some long straight pins. Tie a big ribbon around the crown of the hat, and use the pins to attach the flowers and feathers. Just make sure the sharp ends of the pins don’t come through the hat and poke you in the head.
4. Cameo brooch with crystals and topaz dangle. Daytime jewelry in the period was subdued but elegant. We think Madam Walker wore cameos, and this one looks very pretty with the blouse and hat. Pin it on your collar right at the base of your throat.
5. Lace-up boots in ivory. These are wonderful period boots. They even have lace panels on the sides, which matches the other lace in our costume.
6. Wrist length satin gloves in ivory. Madam Walker would have worn kid gloves, but these are a much less expensive alternative.

Optional corset: It’s not required, but a corset will definitely help give you the correct period silhouette.

Learn more: A’Lelia Bundles is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam Walker and has written the definitive biography of her: On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. Visit the official Madam C.J. Walker website to learn more. Ms. Bundles is currently working on a biography of her namesake, A’Lelia Walker (Madam Walker’s only child), who was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Check out the official A’Lelia Bundles site for more info.


Other costumes in this category: Notable Women