I’ve mentioned dandies in a very limited way so far. Mainly, I’ve said that I was excited to receive a book about Black dandyism and have referred casually to the current Black gentleman movement. I feel like this topic needs some more explaining. Mmmm, on the other hand, let’s just forget about dandies for a little while. I’ll get back to it soon, promise.
When I was first trying to figure out what the 6 garments would look like, and what the main stylistic influence would be, I looked to pieces of literature for insight on the subject (credit goes to Melissa White…in fact she gets credit for most of the smart decisions I’ve made this past year). I had been living in Virginia, and the University of Virginia’s special collections library gave me access to notes, photographs, and other original material used to write a book called Weevils in the Wheat, a compilation of interviews with ex-slaves from the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s. The interview had some 400 questions covering everything from plantation demographics, to daily life and special occasions, and of course, dress and grooming. Questions like, “were you allowed to have pockets?, ” and “how often were you allowed to bathe?” had a big effect on me.
After recovering from the initial shock, I started to pay attention to descriptions of clothing given by the “people formerly known as slaves.” Additionally, I read a book called New Raiments of Self by Helen Bradley Foster, which describes slave’s clothing in the context of it’s African roots. Here is a summary of what I learned from these publications:
- From birth to puberty all African American slaves wore the same thing, large white shirts/dresses (actually the same item of clothing just called by a different name depending on the gender of the child). No pants allowed.
- At some point, usually around puberty, slaves got gender specific clothing, including pants…sometimes. There were a few people who could remember certain male slaves going without pants until early adulthood. Not giving a man pants has an emasculating effect, I imagine. Just one example of the control that can be exerted on others through clothing.
- House slaves, as compared to those who worked in the fields, generally dressed like the Whites they served.
- Fabric and clothing for slaves was sometimes produced on the plantation, so there were highly skilled Black weavers, dyers and seamstresses within many households.
- Many slaves knitted their own socks, sweaters, gloves, and other winter necessities.
- Sometimes Masters gave hand-me-downs garments to their slaves.
- The headscarf is key.
This is a picture of assistant professor Kendra Johnson, who teaches make up, costume technology (yay!), and costume design in the Performing Arts department at Clemson University. She’s been researching slave clothing for a very long time, and the photo below shows some of the dolls she’s made to represent general clothing trends (can you call them that?) during slavery.
At this point in my research I was resigned to wearing oversize linen shirts (no pants) and a frumpy mammy dress. Maybe I could sass up my wardrobe with a fancy headscarf? The year would most definitely be bleak. What a punishment I’d designed for myself! Typical.
And then I met Dennis. I wish I could remember his last name, damn it. Dennis is a fellow at UVa.’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies. Those Woodson Institute Fellows are geniuses. I saw them give oral summaries of their research projects last fall and was so excited to be surrounded by people who think – hard. Those people think hard.
Dennis casually mentioned Monica Miller’s book, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, over drinks one night. I ordered it a few weeks later and that’s when my project really started to evolve.