The term ‘fashion’ seems inappropriate in the context of slavery, rather than a carefully crafted piece of clothing, slaves during the 1800s wore very basic and very demeaning clothing. This blog post will explore the oppressive nature of black ‘fashion’ within the American slave trade and will demonstrate how through fashion, African Americans were stripped of their African culture without being assimilated into the American. In other words, black fashion during this period can be summarised by the nature of slavery.
Like many African tribes today, the fashion involved modification of the body and hair, as well as supplementation through beads, jewellery, hair and colour. Tribes used these as symbols of community and status. However, once kidnapped by slave traders, men and women were physically and symbolically stripped of their culture. Naked and cramped on boast rotting of disease and torture, the knocked bodies of the slaves represents slavery. Having no clothes, accessories etc represents the lack of cultural identity, lack of processions and self expression that fashion can be used for. There is no doubt that fashion can be used as a form of class identity, especially in this period, hence without any the slaves became property.
Upon arrival in America, those who had not committed suicide were sold to slave owners and split up from family members to work on mostly cotton and later tobacco farms in the southern states of America. For male slaves in cotton farms, they wore simple trousers and shirts perhaps with breeches. For women, simple dresses, some with stripes. Slave owners claimed the dress code ensured maximum work efficiency rather than segregate the slaves from American culture. The lack of choice in their fashion highlights the enforced practice of slavery, as well as the controlling nature.
Significantly however, slave fashion can also be used to demonstrate how slaves used fashion to resist slavery. For example, maintaining their nature hair, braiding each others hair whilst singing and telling folklore. Often advertisements for runaway slaves would involve specific hairstyles due to the lack of distinctive clothing.
Black fashion during the slave trade in America had one sole purpose and that was not to maximise work efficiency but to segregate African Americans. They no longer fit into their African culture, yet whilst they were westernised, they were not allowed to become compatible with American citizens. They were slaves and in a way they made it their own through their resistance.