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Slavery and the Making of AmericaPolitical caricature depicting black and white men and women interacting
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Men, Women & Gender
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight Slave Clothing Personal Narratives Original Docs
The Clothes Make the Man, the Woman, and the Slave
Link to Gender Specific Clothing Link to The Power of a Uniform Link to Clothing for slave children Link to Dress that Oppressed and Clothing that Liberated Link to Nudity and the Captive Body Link to Slave Women and the Head-Wrap
Photo of Ellen Craft.  James E. Shepard Memorial Library, Treasure Room Collection, North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina
Dress that Oppressed and Clothing that Liberated

Slave owners manipulated clothing in a variety of ways to oppress their slaves. Female slaves sometimes expressed resentment about dresses that were plain, coarse, and un-feminine. Evidence suggests that dances, attendance at church, and other social gatherings were events for which slave women often put on their fancier dresses and primped themselves in imitation of their mistresses, hoping to attract the attentions of young men. Former slave, Rosa Maddox, declared that good clothes were the reason that she "had lots of beaus."

Masters knew that one way of punishing female slaves was to attack their identity as women. Records indicate that at least one master punished a captured female runaway by forcing her to wear attire designed for men. Harriet Jacobs' owner, Dr. Norcum, took a similar approach. Enraged by Harriet's affair with another man, he cut off her long hair, a traditional marker of feminine beauty.

Slave women also manipulated clothing, however, and were known to use male garments to their benefit. In the fields, some women made leggings similar to pant legs to protect their calves. Other women employed men's clothing for less practical, more daring ends. Harriet Jacobs fled from the home of Dr. Norcum wearing a sailor's suit, and Ellen Craft, a light skinned black woman escaped captivity disguised as a white man. Posing as her servant, Ellen's husband, William, also achieved freedom.

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