It may be considered a rare luxury for enslaved people to own a wardrobe or put themselves across in the most presentable way while working on the plantation. The best appearance the enslaved could have beyond their desires was to look decent and respectable in what they wear irrespective of their social standing, gender or age.
This was largely dependent on what the slave owner offered them to wear or what the owner’s wife gifted the enslaved as an acknowledgment of their hard work, according to researcher Wanett Clyde of the City University of New York.
But, the enslaved were resilient and tenacious to maintain their cultural identity in what they sought to wear on the plantations. This burning desire to preserve the traditions of their forefathers challenged the enslaved people brought to Jamaica to resort to using plant fibers, pigments and bark of trees in the production of their clothing.
The enslaved women were the embodiment of this cultural practice and expression of their African identity, as noted by Steve Buckridge in The Role of Plant Substances in Jamaican Slave Dress.
What one wears is often the measurement of their social standing and status whether in government or being a member of the upper class in society. This tradition is widely held in European society where those of high standing in society dress in a certain frame.
Another school of thought traces this association of how dresses depict class and social standing to the sumptuary laws of the 1300s passed by ancient kings of England. The laws sought to draw a line between social classes and the protection of goods that were manufactured locally. Over the years, these laws have been amended to preserve these unwritten societal codes.
In his book ‘Cotton and Race in the Making of America’, Cultural historian Gene Dattel said these societal pressures gave rise to the demand for cotton to feed the textile industry in England as well as the North. Plantation owners and enslaved people even became aware of the remarkable place cotton held in their lives.
But, for the enslaved, the benefits did not lie in the profit but access to clothing provided them cover and access to their freedom. Historical records show that this explained the high involvement of enslaved people in the production of clothing and the maintenance of all the materials produced from cotton ranging from bed linens and housewares.
They were also in charge of planting cotton seeds, picking the fiber, spinning and weaving it as well as churning out beautiful garments for themselves and their owners. The enslaved women experimented heavily with their yarns and produced several dresses through winter.
They worked in groups from spinning the wheel to teasing the yarn out of the cotton to weaving them into various dress sizes and shapes. The women worked in the cabins and switched roles with others when they got tired from spinning the yarn or carding it.
Failure to complete this task in the production attracted punishment from the mistress who was supervising them.