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.
By the nineteenth century, domestically manufactured wool, cotton, and blends emerged as inexpensive and efficient fabrics by which owners clothed slaves. One blend in particular, jean cloth, became standard issue for slaves in Virginia, and varied in quality from coarse to fine. Slaves with a higher status—and this was true regardless of the time and regardless of whether slaves labored in cities or on plantations—tended to receive higher quality fabric. At the same time, as the United States became more industrialized and cotton goods were produced more cheaply and in large quantities, the term "osnaburg" came to refer to any textile made of cotton, a fabric with a much different texture than the osnaburg linen of the eighteenth century.
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."
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
Charles Crawley, a former slave in Petersburg, remembered that hats were also part of his allotment. In addition to two pairs of shoes, he received "homemade hats an' caps … Our summer hats were made out of plaited straw." Slaves might also receive woolen caps in their winter allotments. Enslaved women working in the home were expected to cover their heads with the same type of lightweight, white cap worn by other members of the household. In addition to wearing hats, many enslaved women continued the West African tradition of donning head wraps—often brightly colored textiles that were wrapped repeatedly and completely around the head, covering the hair, and secured with techniques involving knots or tuckings. Men, children, and babies also wore head wraps.
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.
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. (2016, February 4). 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 Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Feb. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 26, 2014 | Last modified: February 4, 2016
Contributed by Katherine Egner Gruber, a historian and museum professional in Williamsburg.