Dressed up and Laying Bare

Fashion in the Shadow of the Market

Eyre Crowe, ‘Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia,’ 1861.

A slave pen: Waiting

IN A PLANE OF crisp sunlight that angles down through the door frame, and dissolves into rust-coloured shadows settling across the dark floor, unease spreads along the walls of this wooden interior. A woman in the centre hugs a small infant close to her breast. Next to her, another holds a child on her lap. To their left is a muscular man dressed in light yellow work trousers and a waistcoat: he watches them, his face expressively surly. Seated in a semi-circle the women stare intently at the stove, or let their eyes settle on something outside the room. The children scattered amongst them are quiet; each woman is a study of composed concentration. They are dressed well in respectable printed cotton dresses, their sleeves billowing out from under stiff white aprons. Scarlet neckties that fasten their collars and silk bandannas add fancy touches, bright splashes of adornment. One woman crouched behind the stove is shown in even more luxuriant colours, a rich blue coat, a vibrant yellow head wrap and a striped crimson skirt. Through this evocative colouring we are guided in our inspection of the group on view. Four white men – one in the background and the other three conversing in the doorway on the left – like sentinels, stand watch. And as they watch and we watch them, these slaves, neatly arranged on rough wooden benches, quietly wait to be sold.

An alley: Waiting

‘Slaves Awaiting Sale, New Orleans,’ The Illustrated London News, Jan-June, 1861, vol. 38, p. 307, also published as Exchange Alley, Harper’s Weekly, January 21, 1863, p. 61.

A row of women and men stand in front of long windowed offices: above the women a sign ‘T Hart Slaves’ hangs from the wall; the men are positioned closer to the foreground of the woodcut. Opposite the group a scattering of suited men stand in discussion. One stares intently at a woman in a long printed dress, her head adorned in a tight wrap. Under inspection, she looks down at her feet as do the other women and girls. The black men are closer to us: some sit on a low wall while others stand. One man stares straight at the viewer. In the midst of this visual exchange, it is the clothing that stands out: ‘the men [are] in blue cloth of good quality, with beaver hats; and the women in calico dresses of more of less brilliancy, with silk bandanna handkerchiefs bound round their heads.’1 In repeated variations of the same costume these bodies – like the group in the painting – become merchandise, carefully arranged and fashioned for sale.

Dressed Up

In a publication that broadens our engagement and access to the meanings of fashion, what kind of space is there for a discussion of the politics of the slave market? If fashion is a system of choices in which we create (our) space for display, in what other space could systems of display play more of a role than one in which bodies were readied for sale? And another thing; in such a space where transactions were based on uncovering, how did covering-up work? In these two scenes of inspection and display, dressing up slaves for market is clearly crucial to the process of sale. And so we see something startling in the marketing strategy for selling bodies publicly: fashion aided in the unfolding of an extraordinary exposure. Local businesses in cities like New Orleans and Richmond, Virginia – both important centres of the domestic slave trade in the United States – advertised the numerous outfits they could provide for those about to be sold by traders and sellers in the various auctions around the city. Solomon Northup describes his own readying for sale, which began with a bath and was followed by the donning of ‘a new suit … hat, coat, shirt, pants and shoes …[and for] the women frocks of calico, and handkerchiefs to bind about their heads.’2 Another ex-slave explains ‘some of the traders kept … uniforms for both men and women, so that the high hats, the riot of white, pink, red and blue would attract the attention of prospective buyers.’3 

Dressed well, slaves were arrayed to bring the maximum amount of monetary interest, and their clothes were meant to accentuate and highlight their physical features. In the scenes just described, these demure women and men are dressed to highlight their healthiness and their modesty, their cleanliness and their submissive nature. Some buyers added jewellery to the outfits or long-sleeved gloves, creating a more exotic and genteel ‘look’ to draw the buyers’ eye. However, by dressing their slaves well – and similarly – sellers could also minimise differences between different bodies, especially useful for the selling of sickly slaves. Fashion provided a way of turning slaves into images of themselves: forced to dress up they had to embody the images of salability they also represented.

The buying and selling of slaves was a speculative venture that relied purely on reading externals that were then translated into the potential use value of a body. Solomon Northup goes on in his description to tell of a buyer who made him ‘hold up [his] head, walk briskly back and forth … made us open our mouths and show us our teeth.’4 Women were often forced to strip and undergo all kinds of invasive forms of ‘touching.’ These humiliating corporeal encounters allowed prospective buyers to tangibly ascertain the possible value that the well-dressed body of a slave might only suggest, and in the process reduced black women and men into objects. But this language was integral to the act of dressing up too. Being put on display, being inspected, are invasive acts of exposure: processes of stripping back and making the immaterial, or essential, material. In the slave market slaves were alienated from their own bodies through acts as simple as dressing. In being forced to dress up, these women and men were also forced to partake in the marketing of their own bodies. This ‘marketing’ rested on the manifestation of their value as commodities: a manifestation that literally stripped away their humanity. So to wear these clothes in the slave market was also an act of exposure. To dress – to cover – was also to partake in market values of consumption and exchange and thereby reveal one’s ultimate shame: the shame of being saleable, the shame of being property, the shame of being owned. Shame in the context of fashion is often linked to those acts of dress that involve misplacement, misunderstanding or when what we do up is – mistakenly or otherwise – undone. But dressing up for the slave market reflects something else entirely. Fashion was integral to its complicated process of laying bare where dressing up clarified the most shameful thing of all – the dehumanising transformation of bodies into chattel.

Laying Bare

The paradoxical nature of dressing up could also be seen outside the slave market. In the late 1820s the Philadelphian artist Edward W. Clay published a series of lithographs entitled Life in Philadelphia, lampooning the fashion choices of free black Americans. Exaggerated and cruel, these lithographs revolved around the act of dressing up. Bourgeois black men and women are shown ungracefully, uttering malapropisms and wearing fashionable faux pas. Clay’s point was that free black Americans would always remain out of place and inassimilable.5 Clay’s subjects wear too much and in this way they wear too little. In other words his gaudy and garish lithographs suggest that, as far as the black body was concerned, dressing up was ultimately a form of laying bare, of exposing that it did not measure up to fashion‘s imperative. Fashion’s regulative function over the bodies of black Americans is here too closely tied to the materialisation of something immaterial. Clay’s lithographs attempt to turn the accoutrements of bourgeois expression against the bodies that wear them in order to highlight the essentially inferior nature of blackness: a social construction of inferiority that underpinned and justified slavery itself. Clay suggests that by refusing to remain in their place, free black Americans ultimately expose themselves for who they really are, because their inferiority cannot be covered up.

Edward W. Clay, ‘Life in Philadelphia. “How you find youself dis hot weader Miss Chloe?…”‘ C. 1828.

In 1740 the state of South Carolina passed a new slave code that regulated in minute detail the everyday lives of enslaved women and men. The code effectively remained unchanged until the end of slavery in 1863 and made this relationship between fashion, bodies and shame explicit. Under the code, slaves were not allowed to ‘wear clothes … above [their] condition … [and] no owner … shall permit such Negro or other slave to have or wear any sort of apparel whatsoever, finer, other or greater value than Negro cloth.’ Negro cloth quickly became a catch-all title for a range of fabrics distinguished by their coarse texture, functionality and cheap value.6 In beige, grey or yellowish colours the material was often described by planters, travellers and the enslaved themselves as scratchy, uncomfortable and unflattering. The code did not just regulate the materials that could be used, it also enforced a pattern of behaviour: it was a daily reminder of a slave’s status effected through the texture of fabric and was meant to ensure that neither dignity nor prestige could be accorded to them. Negro cloth was generally manufactured in factories and shipped to the plantations, but on some plantations it was made on the premises by slaves and called homespun. Letters between plantation owners and manufacturers describe the trade in cloth that connected factory workers and slave labour across the United States and the Atlantic. In this correspondence we see most clearly how clothing was another form of bodily control as planters describe the type, style and colour of cloth they require for their slaves. These letters also detail how shipments could be delayed, how clothes were made to generalised measurements according to age and gender, and planters’ ideas of what constituted ‘adequate’ clothing differed from the experiences of the enslaved themselves. Free slaves remembered how they were often forced to wear clothing that did not fit, that was too hot for the summer and too cold for the winter, or that they were not given enough clothing at all. These precise legal stipulations legislated the economic meaning of certain bodies at the expense of their humanity. And they were materialised in the industrial networks and plantation arrangements that shaped and limited the lives of the enslaved. As bodies valued for their labour potential, the enslaved required control physically, socially, and psychologically. Hot, heavy and formless, the material of slave clothing revealed its characteristics almost immediately and in doing so simultaneously revealed to others, while reminding its wearers of their status as property. Dressing up, or even just dressing at all, was an intensely fraught, intensely regulated, act for black Americans in the Antebellum Era. We think of dressing as an act of self-control; yet for black bodies dressing was also a signifier of the opposite. Linked to a kind of shaming that was also a kind of psychical uncovering, fashion came to be one of the lenses by which one could see oneself through the eyes of another and be found wanting. This second sight was almost like a second skin, as dress became a powerful strategy of humiliation that could impress on black bodies – whether enslaved or free – their position of powerlessness. In a social system underpinned by slavery, dress played a crucial role in fashioning a whole series of relationships between self and society and between bodies and subjectivity that revolved finally around the question of ownership.

Fashion in the Shadow of the Market

Run-away slave advertisements from Antebellum newspapers often include detailed descriptions of the fashion choices of these fugitives. Interestingly, many note that slaves ran away with colourful jackets or trousers, patterned accessories and better quality garments. Dressing well could sometimes enable slaves to camouflage themselves and find freedom. But it is also likely that these run-away slaves took items they valued with them, items they may have coveted and that gave them dignity. Travellers’ descriptions of plantations observed how on Sundays and special occasions, enslaved communities dressed up. Those who worked as domestics on larger, more successful plantations often had greater access to accumulating finer clothing and wore their elegant dresses and suits with care. Frances Kemble, the wife of a plantation owner, noted how field slaves also dressed up, describing the ‘flounces, frills  and ribbons’7 of the black women as they gathered for their communal meetings. Collecting these clothes and accessories happened in different ways and often depended on the whims of their plantation master and mistress. On some plantations slaves were at times able to make their own clothing according to their own tastes, sometimes using techniques of dying and patterning that recalled African traditions passed down orally amongst slave communities.8 Slaves relate how they were occasionally given bolts of calico for Christmas with which to sew Sunday clothes. Some were given cast-offs from their owners to modify, while others mention how it was possible to barter and trade items for cloth and accessories from travelling merchants or pedlars. It is also common to read about the gorgeous headdresses worn by black women, their brilliant colour and intricate arrangements, a vivid gesture that was both a remembrance of, and connection to, an African heritage. The 1848 escape of Ellen and William Craft from Georgia hinged on an ingenious form of dressing up. In tailored suits and top hat, the light skinned Ellen masqueraded as a slave owner while William played the part of her attentive valet as they travelled by train and steamer to freedom in the North. Off the plantation, newspapers in New York and Philadelphia include scandalised accounts of well-dressed free black dandies and belles who promenaded through the city, refusing to move aside for white pedestrians. These well-dressed women and men used fashion to proclaim their visibility and their worth, as gestures of defiance and self-expression and as a refusal to embody a position of shame. Making and modifying their clothes, black Americans found ways of asserting control and ownership over their performance, their bodies and their subjectivities by dressing up. Fashion wasn’t simply a response; it was also an act of memory and self creation: a space-making gesture. Black Americans knew that the act of dressing also meant entering into a system of value where meaning was shaped by an economic relationship of consumption and exchange. What was at stake was not simply the control of their image but also the meaning of their humanity.

These histories leave us with an impression of the instability of expression and the fragility of display. In writing of these politics of shame one risks emptying the lives of black men and women, inscribing them as only subjugated bodies, powerless in their subjection, and reifying the meaning of their resistance. Slavery’s brutality was powerfully enacted in the daily regimentation of behaviour as much as it was expressed in terrifying expressions of cruelty and humiliation. These ‘acts’ of dressing up amplify our understanding of the violence of the everyday; they also freight the meanings we might ascribe to something as simple – and as extraordinary – as dressing up. Fashion was one of a series of practices through which the system of slavery was implemented and had a daily impact on the bodies of black Americans. Fashion is also a material mode of expression, yet history shows us that some bodies are interpolated through a complex relationship of power in which strategies of resistance and self-expression are not always clearly defined, nor able to completely exist outside ambivalent processes of shame and display. The meanings of fashion within these relationships illustrate how for certain bodies, at certain times and due to certain historical conditions, self-expression was – and perhaps still might be – a precarious act.

As a contested and contesting set of practices, the process of alienation and shame of dressing up reminds us of the contingency of fashion. We need to understand how fashion worked in the fetishisation of black bodies and their conversion into commodities because it tells us something of fashion’s material operations and the ways it makes meaning, differently, for different people. Confronting these meanings of shame and forms of alienation, while sometimes uncomfortable, enriches our understanding of the ways that fashion continues to be a process by which the immaterial, intangible, and interior are materialised: a process that continues to underpin the social, sartorial and economic relations that women and men enact daily.

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Shame.

Dr Anna Arabindan Kesson is an art historian in African American Art at the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.

  1. ‘A Slave Pen in New Orleans’ in Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1863, p 61. 

  2. Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave. Narrative of S Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana, Miller, Orton & Mulligan, New York, 1855, p. 78. 

  3. R Tallant and L Saxon, Gumbo Ya Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales, Pelican Publishing, Gretna, 1987, p. 226. 

  4. S Northup, Twelve Years a Slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana, p. 81. 

  5. For images of Clay’s lithographs see tinyurl.com/7zeyzt3 

  6. See C M Brown, Scissors and Yardstick: Or, All About Dry Goods: Complete Manual, Giving a Detailed Description of Each Article included in the Several Departments together with Upholstery and House-Furnishing Goods; Also a List of All the Principal Dry Goods Manufacturing Cities and Towns of the World, Brown and Jaqua, Hartford, 1872, p. 152; S W Beck, The draper’s dictionary: A manual of textile fabrics; their history and applications, The Warehousemen & Drapers’ Journal Office, 1882, p. 298. By the nineteenth century these materials would have been manufactured either on the plantation or sent there from the New England mill towns of the North. F A Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, University of Georgia Press, 1984, p. 93. 

  7. H Bradley Foster, New Raiments of Self: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South, Berg, Oxford, 1997; L J Wares, Dress Of The African American Woman In Slavery And Freedom: 1500 to 1935, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Purdue University, 1981.