Fashioning Slavery: Slaves and Clothing in the U.S. South, 1830–1865
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation examines such varied sources as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Eastman Johnson’s genre paintings, runaway advertisements, published narratives, plantation records, the WPA ex-slave narratives, and nearly thirty items of clothing with provenance connections to enslaved wearers. The research presented in the following pages seeks to reveal the complexities surrounding clothing and slave life in the antebellum South by examining a variety of sources in combination. Enslaved people resisted race-based slavery by individualizing their appearance when working and when playing, but they were ultimately unsuccessful in resisting their exclusion from the race-based American fashion system. In bringing together previous scholarship on slavery in the American South, material culture, and fashion studies, this project reveals the deep connections between race and fashion in the antebellum United States. Enslaved people struggled against a racist culture that attempted to exclude them as valid participants in American culture. The individuality expressed by slaves through personalizing their clothing was a tactic of resistance against racism and race-based slavery. In many instances, enslaved people chose to acquire and dress in fashionable Euro-American clothing, a method of resistance because it was an attempt by them to disrupt the racially exclusionary fashion system of the antebellum United States. Though relatively few garments survive today, the voices of enslaved people and the records of their oppressors provide a rich narrative that helps deconstruct the many ways in which slaves encountered clothing. Clothing played an integral part in the daily life of enslaved African Americans in the antebellum South and functioned in multi-faceted ways across the antebellum United States to racialize and engender difference, and to oppress a variety of people through the visual signs and cues of the fashion system. By combining written, visual, and material sources, this study demonstrates the imperative that dress be a central part of the analysis as scholars continue to explore the history of race and slavery in the United States.