LYDIA JEAN WARES, Purdue University


Dress behavioral patterns for the African American woman evolved from her cultural heritage. Major emphasis was on clothing worn in Africa and the United States during slavery and freedom from 1500 until 1935. Both social situation and geographic location dictated codes of dress. Information was gleaned from documents, analysis of cultural traits, and elements of African American history. A sequence of clothing styles was developed. From 1619 to 1808 nine million Africans were enslaved and imported to America. Virginia law declared slavery hereditary. South Carolina law required masters to clothe slaves and dress codes resulted from the Negro Act of 1735. Slaves provided raw materials and made items of clothing on Southern plantations. Textile machinery improved during the Industrial Revolution increasing demands for raw cotton and a supportive labor force. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and amendments to the Constitution of the United States abolished slavery, granted citizenship, and gave voting privileges. During the Reconstruction, African Americans were excluded from mechanized industry. Organizations and schools were founded to improve economic and educational opportunities, with resulting changes reflected in dress. West African women and African American women combined slave clothing and American styles to establish a mode of dress. "Carry-overs" from Africa included cultivation of indigo and cotton, knowledge of dyeing, weaving and sewing, as handwoven garments, hair styles and head wrappings, and use of color. Slave seamstresses made all clothing worn by slaves. Field slaves dressed according to law or dress codes. Basic garment of female slaves consisted of a one-piece frock or slip of coarse "Negro Cloth." Cotton dresses, sunbonnets, and undergarments were made from handwoven cloth for summer and winter. Annual clothing distributions included brogan shoes, palmetto hats, turbans, and handkerchiefs. Attire for weddings, funerals, and festive occasions was the best affordable, whether handmade, secondhand, borrowed, or inexpensive ready-to-wear. Freed African Americans dressed similarly depending on location and means. Recommendations for study include: dress behavior patterns of men and children, of African American women since 1935, and contributions to the clothing industry.



Subject Area

Black history

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