Africans and the Middle Passage
When captured and loaded onto ships for the Middle Passage, Africans generally had their clothing removed but, at least in some cases, not necessarily all of their adornment. Franz Louis Michel, a Swiss visitor to Virginia in 1702, wrote in his report that enslaved Africans "are entirely naked when they arrive, having only corals of different colors around their necks and arms." Many slave-ship captains argued that clothing prevented them from keeping their captives clean and free from disease. At least one report, from 1787 and referring to French slave ships, explains that not even loincloths were permitted lest the Africans use them to hang themselves.
Upon their arrival in Virginia, Africans generally were separated from their families and other members of their distinct cultural groups, cleaned or even greased to make their appearances more appealing for auction, and given new names. Newly enslaved Africans were also made to don European-style clothing. By the seventeenth century, adopting a few articles of European-inspired clothing was seen as a status symbol among elite Africans in Africa, but most slaves were unaccustomed to their new European garments. In her study of the generations of slaves at Carter's Grove plantation in James City County, From Calabar to Carter's Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community (1997), the historian Lorena S. Walsh argues that early enslaved Africans, particularly those who came directly from Africa, were uncomfortable with their allotments of European-style clothing. Many found their new garments confusing and constricting. In her memoirs of growing up on a Virginia plantation, A Girl's Life in Virginia before the War (1895), Letitia M. Burwell relates an anecdote told to her by a family slave regarding how an enslaved African felt about his allotment of clothing. It was difficult at first to wear clothes, he recalled, and every chance he got he pulled them off, because "folks don't war no close in he country."
While enslaved Virginians wore the same basic types of clothing that other members of society wore, the fabrics of their garments were often—but not always—inferior compared with those worn by free Virginians. Some North American colonies, such as South Carolina, enforced what were known as sumptuary laws, which prohibited a person from dressing in a way that was perceived to be above his or her station. In Virginia, however, slave laws never prohibited an enslaved person from wearing any particular fabric or other adornment. Virginia's omnibus 1705 slave law simply mandated that slave holders provide their slaves with clothing. For this reason, plantation owners and other slave holders made provisions for slave clothing based mostly on fabric availability and what was most time- and cost-effective. For example, owners sought to clothe field slaves in fabrics that were chosen for their durability and relatively low cost, not for their comfort or fashion.
Named for its location of origin, Osnabrück, in present-day Germany, osnaburg (also oznabrig or oznaberg) was a textile woven from strands of hemp or flax (linen). It was often left unbleached, and its coarse natural fibers provided a brown hue. Osnaburg was a cheap and accessible fabric, imported in mass quantities to merchants and storehouses in Virginia, and to plantations directly. Because it was affordable and widely available, most plantation owners chose this fabric as the mainstay for slave clothing. The fabric was not used exclusively for this purpose, however. The historian Ann Smart Martin's analysis of customers and their purchases of osnaburg in the ledgers from John Hook's eighteenth-century store in New London (then in Bedford County) found that white indentured servants, artisans, and other laborers also wore clothes made from osnaburg fabric.
While some slave holders provided their slaves clothes on an as-needed basis, the most common practice was to provide clothing twice a year, coinciding with the seasonal duties of their laborers. For field slaves, who accounted for a vast majority of Virginia's enslaved population, a summer allotment of clothing included shirts and trousers for men and gowns for women, all identical and made of osnaburg, linen, or lighter-weight cotton. A winter allotment included a coat, shoes, and, less frequently, a blanket. Some owners provided their slaves with the fabric, needles, and thread to construct the garments they required. The historian Lucia Stanton has shown that Thomas Jefferson preferred this method. According to notes in his Farm Book, he provided slaves with fabric yardage based on their size, allocating one yard of fabric for children's wear and seven yards for "common sized men or women."
When owners provided just the raw materials for slaves to construct their own clothing, enslaved seamstresses, local tailors, and even the mistress of the plantation herself were often called upon to pattern and cut the fabric for garments, and to supervise the stitching. The work was completed by hand until the invention of the sewing machine, which was not widely used until the 1850s. Employing a skilled seamstress or tailor ensured that the fabric would be used efficiently, eliminating as much waste of the textile as possible. Any scraps of fabric that were available were used to make repairs when necessary and offered a rare chance for slaves to adorn their otherwise uniform allotments. Some slaves saved money to purchase small pieces of brightly colored or patterned textiles. When time allowed and materials were available, slaves were sometimes able to add color to their monochrome allotments by using foodstuffs or, most commonly, indigo, to dye textiles.
Liveried and Domestic Slaves
Female domestic slaves attending to the plantation mistress and her children wore gowns of calico or fine linen completed by a silk or fine linen apron. Because their dress reflected the style and status of the woman of the house, female domestic servants may also have received stays and corsets—the basic shape-building and supportive undergarments that were commonly used to create a female's figure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Slave owners did not always provide an allotment of clothing for small children, and it was not common for them to receive an allotment of shoes. Ebenezer Hazard, who visited Williamsburg on June 8, 1777, wrote in his journal: "The Virginians, even in the City, do not pay proper Attention to Decency in the Appearance of their Negroes; I have seen Boys of 10 & 12 Years of Age going through the Streets quite naked, & others with only Part of a Shirt hanging Part of the Way down their Backs. This is so common a Sight that even the Ladies do not appear to be shocked at it."
Shoes, Headwear, and Jewelry
In the eighteenth century, enslaved adults generally received a pair of leather, straight-lasted (i.e., no left or right) shoes in their clothing allotment. Liveried servants received leather shoes with buckles, while children typically received no shoes at all. Thomas Jefferson, for example, did not begin issuing shoes to enslaved children until they were ten years old. Some shoes were imported, some purchased from local tradesmen, and others, called "country shoes," were produced on the plantation when a slave was taught the trade. In the nineteenth century, enslaved shoemakers continued to produce country shoes, while other shoes, called "brogans," were imported from the North. Wooden-soled brogans quickly developed a reputation for being so uncomfortable and ill-fitting that former slaves, interviewed in the 1930s, recollected casting them off, preferring to go barefoot.
Enslaved females added fashion and personal expression by wearing jewelry. When an enslaved woman named Silvie ran away in 1800, her owner in Norfolk pointed out that she "generally wears large round gold ear rings and a cut glass necklace." John Davis, an Englishman who taught school on a plantation in Prince William County, observed in Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America (1803) that when enslaved women traveled to meet their neighbors, "the girls never failed to put on their garments of gladness, their bracelets, and chains, rings and ear-rings." Archaeological sites across Virginia and Maryland, as well as the Caribbean, offer evidence of slaves fashioning necklaces or adorning their clothes with cowrie shells and glass beads.
Other Modes of Acquisition
Slaves often borrowed or even stole clothing when the need arose to supplement their wardrobe. For example, when running away, many enslaved women stole articles of clothing that were not part of their yearly allotments, such as silk and colorful calico gowns, which helped them blend into the free population.
These ads often also listed garments allegedly stolen from the household, suggesting that these clothes may have allowed the fugitives to pass themselves off as free people. Sam's owner also sought a young man named Tom, who "has with him sundry clothes, a white Virginia cloth jeans coat, a green cloth coat with a blue narrow cape, blue button holes, and metal buttons, an old mixed Wilton coat, two narrow striped Virginia cloth jackets, white breeches, and good shoes and stockings." Another fugitive, in 1802, "took with him a pair of new brown cashmere pantaloons" and "a new black hat."
The historians (and brothers) Shane and Graham White have argued that slaves also stole clothing in order to sell it to other slaves. This helped to finance a runaway's travels, while providing those who stayed behind a way to supplement their allotments.
Other slaves were able to purchase items of clothing legitimately on the market. With money earned from odd jobs or by selling garden produce, they could purchase accessories and other personal goods. The historian Ann Smart Martin has shown that slaves even exchanged raw cotton for credit in John Hook's Bedford County store in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With cash or, in some instances, credit, slaves purchased colorful ribbon, hats, jewelry, fine textiles, and even ready-made garments to supplement their wardrobes. Slaves also purchased items that harkened back to the cultural memory of African fashion, wearing purchased beads, cowrie shells, and even coins on strings around their necks.
Regardless of how slaves acquired additional (and often very fine) clothes and accessories, the scholars Shane and Graham White suggest that it was the drab combined with touches of finery that made slave clothing unique. Additionally, as slaves purchased accessories for their otherwise plain "uniforms," the resulting contrasts of colors and textiles were visually jarring to many free Virginians, further separating the dress of the enslaved from the dress of the free.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Gruber, K. E. Slave Clothing and Adornment in Virginia. (2018, January 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Slave_Clothing_and_Adornment_in_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Gruber, Katherine Egner. "Slave Clothing and Adornment in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 29 Jan. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 26, 2014 | Last modified: January 29, 2018
Contributed by Katherine Egner Gruber, a historian and museum professional in Williamsburg.