Clothing has always been an indicator of class in America. Even during the time of
slavery, a man was judged not only by the color of his skin, but by his apparel as well.
This meant that slaves also had to live up to the reputation of their white families. If
the family was high class, its' slaves had to demonstrate it. Domestic slaves, those who
predominately worked inside, were usually better groomed and cared for. Providing slaves
with good clothing was essential to the master's position in society as well as to the
performance of the slave. Well-dressed slaves felt better about themselves and hence were
more productive. A positive correlation was seen between self-esteem and nice clothes. The
most important effect of having slaves well clothed was the health benefits it brought.
Consider harsh winters with no protection from the cold. If the slaves were not cared for
properly, disease was bound to spread and take over the immune system. Clothing, blankets,
socks are all fundamental to health care. Healthy slaves were essential to the labor force
and appropriate clothing made for healthy workers.
Keeping all of those benefits in mind, it is hard to comprehend why very few masters kept
their slaves in decent clothing. Here's a statement taken from a plantation manual written
by James H. Hammand:
Each man gets in the fall 2 shirts of cotton drilling, a pair of woolen
pants and a woolen jacket. In the spring 2 shirts of cotton shirting and 2 pr. of cotton
pants.... Each woman gets in the fall 6 yds. of woolen cloth, 6 yds. of cotton drilling
and a needle, skein (continuous strand wrapped in a bundle) of thread and 1/2 dozen
buttons. In the spring 6 yds. of cotton shirting and 6 yds. of cotton cloth similar to
that for men's pants, needle thread and buttons. `Each worker gets a stout pr. Of shoes
every fall, and a heavy blanket every third year." ( Stampp 291).
That was what most masters allotted their slaves. Others gave more,
including under garments, socks, and caps. Yet even the most generous masters kept their
slave with nearly nothing, at least in comparison to how much the master owned.
Clothing was basically distributed two times a year. These distributions became somewhat
ritualistic; some masters would travel back home to personally call each slave by name and
give his or her share. The masters hoped that this would result in gracious and content
slaves. Yet slaves, with much reason, were far from content. They complained about the
quantity, as well as the quality, of their meager gifts. Most slaves were able to change
and wash their clothes once a week, if at all. Quality wise the cotton garments, "
oshaburgs", were quite enduring yet at the same time quite rough. Children received
even less clothing. Famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass states that he:
... was kept almost in a state of nudity; no shoes; no stockings; no jacket;
no trousers; nothing but coarse sack-cloth or tow-linen, made into a sort of shirt,
reaching down to my knees. This I wore night and day, changing it once a week."
( Stampp 291 ).
But most of the complaints were about the shoes. Shoes were either too stiff and either
too big or too small. Some masters attempted to resolve the problem by measuring the
slaves' feet but this rarely resulted in much good. Measurements were way off and the
material was grotesque. Since their master's solutions weren't effective, slaves took the
matter into their own hands. A technique of rubbing grease, that alleviated some of the
discomfot, was developed.
The clothes that were worn by slaves came from various places. Most of it came form
factories. Other times it was manufactured on southern mills or on the plantation itself.
The slave women, the plantation mistress, or the overseer's wife would often dedicate most
of their time to creating clothes for all of the slaves on the plantation. Other
plantations had each slave family responsible for the production of their own clothing.
The slaves had a profound preference for red more than any other color. In fact, so much
of their clothing was red that they learned to make dyes in order to personalize their
clothing according to their tastes.
Usually slaves did not care about their appearance during the week while working on the
plantation. Yet when the weekends came, especially Sundays, it was time to dress up.
Clothes were washed and hair was combed and styled. The slaves worked extra hard to earn a
little extra money in order to purchase special clothing and accessories for these days.
This extra effort was an act of self-respect. They wanted to look good for themselves, as
well as for their peers. They took pride in their appearance on weekends.