Juneteenth began on June 19th, 1865. The Civil War had ended months ago, but in Texas, black people were enslaved long after the war ended on April 9, 1865. White slave owners refused to free their slaves and were angry that slavery was over. As a result, we have Juneteenth. So, as we go into this holiday weekend, let’s take a moment to remember the history behind the holiday, and how slavery and fashion production were so intertwined.
The first slave was brought to America in 1619. Slaves were quickly divided by skin color by the white population as a means of division and control. Although light-skinned black women were picked to work in the house, and dark-skinned black women were forced to work outside, all female slaves had to do domestic work for their white mistresses. This includes sewing. Many female slaves who did not know how to sew upon being taken to America were taught to make clothing for their master’s wives and daughters. They also made clothing for other slaves.
In some rare cases, female slaves were sent to Europe to learn the latest fashion trends to make fashionable clothing for their master’s family. Some moved about freely to purchase fabric. Female slaves who could sew were often priced higher in slave auctions. Due to forced sexual relations, many slave seamstresses were mixed-race, and they used their skills and lighter complexions to move throughout America’s color hierarchy. For some female slaves, sewing was their only occupation. Black female slaves, whether young or old, were given as gifts to white women. For white women, it was fun to look at the fancy imported fabrics that had come from other European colonies and then force black women to make the fashions of their fantasies.
As for the clothing of slaves, it was not a glamourous Gone with the Wind story. Slaves wore clothing of inferior cloth. It was scratchy and uncomfortable. ‘Negro Cloth’ was lower-quality fabric that was used to distinguish black slaves from free white people. Mixed race black women were afforded better opportunities than darker-skinned black women and were given the master’s hand me-downs, or more fashionable clothing. Clothing, like skin color, was used by white people to separate the black race. Lighter-skinned black women were seen as more beautiful and fashionable than darker skinned black women. This led to rampant stereotypes such as the ‘tragic (but always beautiful) mulatto’, ‘jezebel’ and ‘Aunt Jemima’. Even after slavery, lighter-skinned black women were often depicted in advertisements wearing fancy clothing and accessories. Black fashion designers were often ignored and never given credit for the designs they created for white women. Even today, many successful fashion designers are either White, Hispanic or Asian.
Despite these obstacles, Black women have been able to leave their mark on American Fashion. Whether it be unique hairstyling or headpieces such as the turban, black women in Texas and the United States have come a long way since slavery and Juneteenth in terms of justice and how style defines them. And there is still a long way to go.