Tuesday, 20 June 2017



he Clothes Make the Man, the Woman, and the Slave

Photo of a male and a female African-American slaves in a field wearing similar clothing
Gender Specific Clothing

Adult male and female slaves usually dressed in clothing deemed gender appropriate by white society. Thus, men were given pants, women dresses. In the winter, masters generally distributed extra clothing to their slaves. These supplemental items, and others constructed by the slaves themselves, were also different for men and women. For instance, under their skirts women often made and wore pantalets, pant-like items that reached just above the knee. While men were given knee-length coats to wear during the colder seasons, women received heavy wraps, which they wore as shawls. The picture above, though taken after Emancipation, shows a black man and woman in the gender distinct clothing that they would have worn as slaves.

The Slave Experience: Men, Women & Gender

The Clothes Make the Man, the Woman, and the Slave

Photo of an African-American man in a Union Army uniform
The Power of a Uniform

Many planters used a philosophy of paternalism to justify slavery. They imagined themselves as the fathers of slaves who needed to be cared for and guided. This way of thinking not only validated the master's ownership of slaves, but also his punishment of those in his custody. It was a system that disempowered all slaves, men and women, relegating them to the status of children.

Enslaved men who escaped to union lines and became soldiers gained a renewed sense of power. For the first time, they put on uniforms in wage earning jobs and were permitted to carry firearms. One ex-slave described the experience in this way:

"After the war started, I ran off and joined the army ... I was sent to Tullahoma for training. This was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life. I felt like a man, with a uniform on and a gun in my hand ..."

This slave's identity as an adult male was restored by his position as a soldier in the fight against slavery and was symbolized by his attire.

The Slave Experience: Men, Women & Gender
Slave Clothing

The Clothes Make the Man, the Woman, and the Slave

Photo of African-American children on a plantation
Clothing for slave children

Slave children were often given minimal amounts of clothing. On some farms, they went entirely naked. Mattie Curtis, who was enslaved in North Carolina, remembered in an interview years later:

"I went as naked as Yo' han' till I was fourteen years old. I was naked like that when my nature come to me. Marse Whitfield aren't carin', but atter dat mammy tol' him dat I had ter have clothes."

As Mattie's memory suggests, changes in the dress of slaves often occurred at the onset of adolescence. For boys, this usually meant trading in long dress-like shirts, similar to those worn by the children pictured above, for pants. Fountain Hughes, formerly a slave, recalled:
The Clothes Make the Man, the Woman, and the Slave

Slave Women and the Head-Wrap

Photo of Ellen Craft. James E. Shepard Memorial Library, Treasure Room Collection, North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina
Dress that Oppressed and Clothing that Liberated

Slave owners manipulated clothing in a variety of ways to oppress their slaves. Female slaves sometimes expressed resentment about dresses that were plain, coarse, and un-feminine. Evidence suggests that dances, attendance at church, and other social gatherings were events for which slave women often put on their fancier dresses and primped themselves in imitation of their mistresses, hoping to attract the attentions of young men. Former slave, Rosa Maddox, declared that good clothes were the reason that she "had lots of beaus."

Masters knew that one way of punishing female slaves was to attack their identity as women. Records indicate that at least one master punished a captured female runaway by forcing her to wear attire designed for men. Harriet Jacobs' owner, Dr. Norcum, took a similar approach. Enraged by Harriet's affair with another man, he cut off her long hair, a traditional The Clothes Make the Man, the Woman, and the Slave

Gender Specific Clothing The Power of a Uniform Link to Clothing for slave children Dress that Oppressed and Clothing that Liberated Nudity and the Captive Body Slave Women and the Head-Wrap

Flagellation of A Female Slave
Nudity and the Captive Body

William Blake's image (right) of a black woman being whipped was created for a book about slavery in Surinam. However, the vision it presents is significant for North American slavery as well. In their efforts to assert control, masters not only dressed their slaves, but also undressed them. Slaves were stripped for inspection on the auction block and often provided with insufficient clothing while working in the fields.

Whipping, a common form of slave punishment, demanded the removal of clothing. For the female slave, this generally meant disrobing down to the waist. Although her state of half dress allowed the woman some modesty, it also exposed her naked breasts to all eyes. This sight reinforced white perceptions associating sexuality with the "uncivilized" black female. At the same time, the slave's body, uncovered and vulnerable, could provoke the desire of onlookers, increasing the chances of the woman being sexually assaulted as well.marker of feminine beauty.

Slave women also manipulated clothing, however, and were known to use male garments to their benefit. In the fields, some women made leggings similar to pant legs to protect their calves. Other women employed men's clothing for less practical, more daring ends. Harriet Jacobs fled from the home of Dr. Norcum wearing a sailor's suit, and Ellen Craft, a light skinned black woman escaped captivity disguised as a white man. Posing as her servant, Ellen's husband, William, also achieved freedom.
" ... you wore a dress like a woman till I was ... ten, twelve, thirteen years old."