Traditional Clothes Worn by Slaves on Plantations in the South

12 Posted by - November 14, 2018 - LATEST POSTS, SLAVERY

Slaves were not supplied with a lot of clothing. They were barely supplied with one item that was decent enough to wear. If slaves were hired out, they usually received more clothing at this time; two suits, one pair of shoes, and one blanket. However, this was not a general rule; it could vary from plantation to plantation. On many plantations it was common for children under 10 or 12-years-old to go naked. Boys transitioned to breeches, or short pants, and then to long pants. Girls later wore adult dresses when they began to menstruate. Plain leather shoes and sometimes hats were also included in allotments.

The material of the clothing was coarse and far from being comfortable and warm. Shoes that were given to the slaves usually last only a few weeks. Slaves were required to keep their own clothing clean. If slaves washed their clothing items it was after working all day in the field, and then they were required to wash the clothing at a stream. Afterwards, they would build a fire and dry them; and in some instances slaves wore their clothes until they were worn off, without washing. 

On some plantations slaves were allowed to make baskets, brooms and other items to sell. They could sell the items to buy Sunday suit. Plantation slave owners did not give slaves mittens or stockings. By the nineteenth century, and the rise of cotton production, materials such as jean cloth became more common and allowed owners to provide slaves clothing that was untailored and ready-made. The most common practice was to distribute clothes in twice-a-year allotments.

Many slave 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 at times.


1 Comment

  • Keith January 17, 2019 - 10:11 am Reply

    A more complete history of the African American head scarf is presented in the book, History of the French Quarter by Herbert Asbury. The Tignon as it was known was widely worn by slaves and free blacks in the colony.
    By the late 1780’s a competition between the white French and Spanish Creole women of the colony and the women of mixed white and African blood had reached a fever pitch undoubtedly over the public affront of placage which was the well known system of the Creole men taking mixed blood blacks as mistresses and housing them in cottages on Rampart Street, the then northern extreme of the city. The free women of color began to compete with the Creole women in fashion, especially in the realm of the dressing of hair and colorful hats bedecked with exotic plumage. The Creole women of the colony retaliated by bending the ear of the then Governor Miro who enacted the Tignon Laws (pronounced tee-yon) in 1786 forbidding women of color from wearing European hats or going bare headed but instead they were required to cover their heads with the turban-like knotted head scarves similar to those worn in west Africa. The ladies of color took what was supposed to be a mark of secondary class distinction and made it their own distinctive mark of fashion by using bright colored fabrics, ribbons and bows. I highly recommend the book as it gives a clear explanation of the Code Noir which forbade the marriage of mixed blood blacks with full blood blacks. This is the birth of light skinned distinction, which is at the heart of “colorism” discrimination within the African American community today.

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