“New Raiments of Self”: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South

“New Raiments of Self”: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South – Review

Noralee Frankel

By Helen Bradley Foster (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. ix plus 359pp. $46.00/cloth $19.95/paperback).

For years, fashion exhibits in museums have ignored African Americans until the exhibits came to the 1960s. This book redresses that neglect of African American clothing in the earlier antebellum periods through its text and fine illustrations.

One of themes of the book stressed in chapter one and the last chapter is how African dress, modified by European contact in Africa, influenced African American clothing during slavery. Although Europeans saw Africans as “uncivilized” because they did not wear clothing in the manner of Europeans, Africans integrated European cloth and certain articles of clothing into their dress. Once in the United States, African Americans modified Western dress through adaptation of styles from Africa. While the book proves again what we already know about African syncretism, it places it in a unique context.

Through their African heritage, African Americans contributed to American knowledge of dress and design. The use of indigo by slaves as a dye was probably an African survival. West African practices influenced slave religious ceremonial clothing particularly in the slaves’ use of white for funerals. The concluding chapter on headwrap shows some of the most creative work, and the connection with Africa is quite strong. Although changed by the African American experience and tied up with the stereotypic image of the mammy, the headwrap bandanna or turban was a source of pride in earlier times. Women wore headwraps on special occasions. The headwrap also indicated that a girl had matured into a grownup. More than specific examples of syncretism between the African and American experience is the author’s contention that the slaves’ ability to “improvise and to creatively adopt new materials. (p. 216)” was an important West African survival.

The opening chapter on Africa discuses the materials Africans used to cover themselves including, wool, silk, animal skin, bark cloth, bast fiber (from stems such as raffia palm), and cotton. The importance of cloth within the African slave trade is explored. Cloth and clothing production are explained for both Africa and the southern plantation United States. Throughout the book are detailed analyses of what people wore and how articles of dress were made.

A sexual distribution of labor existed within cloth production both in African and in the antebellum south but the tasks were different. In Africa, men were often weavers. In the American south, women became proficient. Thus, both societies assigned tasks by gender but they were not always in agreement as to proper work for men and women. Since spinning and weaving were women’s work in antebellum slavery, the rooms in which they worked became gendered space. More elaboration on how slave women built their own sense of connectedness with each other during these times would have enhanced the narrative. In fact, slave women working in textile and clothing production on plantations, as the author notes, resisted the harshness of slavery through their involvement in work slowdowns.

Slaves’ clothing signified a range of cultural interactions. Certain clothes and manner of dress expressed differences in age, gender and class. Children’s clothing was often a one piece unisex garment, but depending on the sex of the wearer, it was referred to differently. If it was worn by a boy, it was called a shirt; when worn by a girl it was called a dress. Boys received pants around the age of puberty. For adults, clothing was tied to job status. Domestic servants wore better clothes provided by their masters. There was a constant tension between white demands on African American dress for both domestic slaves and field hands and the slaves’ fight for as much autonomy within their dress as they could maintain.

Dress and undress had complex meanings for slaves. The absence of clothing during the forced migration of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade and during slavery was a way to dehumanize slaves, particularly slave women. Conversely, slaves chose to adorn their clothing on special occasions because of their belief in their own humanity and their resistance to the demeaning aspects of slavery. Clothing served as an outlet of creativity and pride which slavery often stifled. Special events received extra attention since this clothing provides more insights into African Americans’ own choice of adornment and dress than everyday wear.

The major source of evidence in the book are the slave narratives recorded by interviewers under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s. While this source can provide the perfect anecdote or “good story” to demonstrate a point, there are times when the quotes overwhelm the text. On occasion the quotes are allowed to speak for themselves with little analysis. The book’s excellent illustrations could also have been analyzed even more thoroughly as documents and source material. Other sources could have been helpful for the project. Only slave narratives are cited to show that “clothing was usually home-grown and the clothing was homemade.” Some plantation account books with planters’ records would have been useful to support or refute this contention and might have provided some regional variation. Occasionally, contradictory evidence within the slave narratives’ quotes is ignored, leaving the reader in a quandary as to the meaning of the material. The domestic slaves’ ambivalence about being dressed up by whites while often feeling proud about how they looked needed more exploration.

The book is valuable especially for material culture historians interested in the social significance of clothing. There is an excellent bibliography and a glossary with clear definition of terms.

Noralee Frankel

American Historical Association

COPYRIGHT 1999 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group