Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Slave Clothing: Interwoven Cultures (part 1)

The culture the slaves created was not an imitation of the Euro-American culture of their masters and mistresses. Nor was it merely a transplanted African culture. Rather, it was a hybrid culture which included white, African, and Indian influences. This hybrid culture was expressed poignantly through the clothing slaves wore and made for themselves.

Both the types of clothing and the materials used for slave clothing were largely determined by the slave owners. Thus, they were derived from the Euro-American traditions. This does not mean however, that the slaves had no say in their clothing. Indeed, they imposed their own styles and aesthetics upon the clothing they made and wore.

Unlike the symmetrical preferences of Europe and America, Africans tended to prefer spontaneity in design and color. This aesthetic appears to have its origins in the folk beliefs of African cultures. Folk customs indicate that jumbled patterns were thought to keep bad spirits away because evil only traveled in straight lines.

Unable to create exact replicas of their African (Mande) textiles, American slaves preferred calico to checked prints. Another option slaves had was to spin their own fabrics. Many slave women were trained as spinsters. They were able to use this skill for their own clothing as well as clothing to be sold by their masters. A final option was to use the issued fabric and make strips similar to those used in strip quilts. These strips were assembled to create the staggered patterns desired.

For more information on this topic see also:

John Michael Vlach, By the Work of Their Hands: Studies in Afro-American Folklives (Ann Arbor: University of Michican Research Press, 1991).

Roderick A. McDonald, The Economy and Material Culture of Slaves: Goods and Chattels on the Sugar Plantations of Jamaica and Louisiana (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993).

Betty Wood, Women's Work, Men's Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcountry Georgia (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1995).

B.A. Botkin, ed., Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1945).

1 response(s):

Cassavaugh Family said...

Keep the posts coming. I'm enjoying the reading. So Dan's school does a "morning show" every morning that is broadcast to every room, which are all equipped with TVs. This week is Dan's classes turn to do the morning show. He was running the camera today and tomorrow he does the joke. We stayed to watch and were happy to learn the librarian prepares a blurb on a person each day to highlight black history month. Today's was James LaBron. Nick was a bit dismayed that of all people they chose him until he realized it was one of 20 people they would be highlighting this month. My only issue is YES he is a great athlete but he went from high school to the pros. So do we want to emphasize to the kids to go for sports and not education? What about college?