Clothing and Adornment of Enslaved People in Virginia


The clothing and adornment of enslaved people varied across time and across Virginia. In West Africa, where many enslaved people came from, clothing was minimal, and even that was generally stripped from newly enslaved people. In Virginia, enslaved people were outfitted with European clothing they often found to be constricting and uncomfortable. The fabrics tended to be inferior, with enslavers using whatever was most cost-effective. Homespun Virginia cloth and imported osnaburg fabric (made from flax and hemp) were common in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, with the rise of cotton production and industrialization, jean cloth became more common and allowed ensalvers to provide clothing that was untailored and ready-made. The most common practice was to distribute clothes in twice-a-year allotments, with liveried (uniformed) and domestic enslaved laborers receiving higher-quality clothing than field hands, who wore the plainest and coarsest clothing. Children wore simple gowns. Boys transitioned to breeches, or short pants, and then to long pants, and girls wore adult dresses when they began to menstruate. Plain leather shoes and sometimes hats also were included in allotments, while women, reflecting West African traditions, sometimes wore cloth head wraps. To aid in running away, some enslaved people stole better clothes while others saved money and purchased or, in some instances, earned better attire.

Africans and the Middle Passage

Head Dress & Ornaments of the Negro Women.

Along the Ivory Coast, from which many of Virginia’s early enslaved laborers were captured, most Africans embraced a simple, yet functional mode of dress that many Europeans regarded as uncivilized. In many African cultural traditions, people were considered clothed as long as their genitals were covered by textiles or pieces of leather. It was not necessary for women to cover their breasts and young children often remained uncovered until puberty. Africans achieved more personalized adornment by adding strands of beads or shells around the neck or arms and incorporating beads into head wraps or weaving them directly into locks of hair.

When captured and loaded onto ships for the Middle Passage, Africans generally had their clothing removed but, at least in some cases, not necessarily all of their adornment. Franz Louis Michel, a Swiss visitor to Virginia in 1702, wrote in his report that enslaved Africans “are entirely naked when they arrive, having only corals of different colors around their necks and arms.” Many captains of slave ships argued that clothing prevented them from keeping their captives clean and free from disease. At least one report, from 1787 and referring to French slave ships, explained that not even loincloths were permitted lest the Africans use them to hang themselves.

The Middle Passage

While jewelry was likely confiscated in most cases, at least one account of the Middle Passage, by the British surgeon Alexander Falconbridge, notes that beads were furnished to captive women “for the purpose of affording them some diversion.” William Hugh Grove, an Englishman who visited Virginia in 1732, observed captives aboard a slave ship in Virginia and noted in his journal, “The Boyes and Girles [were] all Stark naked; so Were the greatest part of the Men and Women. Some had beads about their necks, arms, and Wasts, and a ragg or Peice of Leather the bigness of a fig Leafe.”

Upon their arrival in Virginia, Africans generally were separated from their families and other members of their distinct cultural groups, cleaned or even greased to make their appearances more appealing for auction, and given new names. Newly enslaved Africans were also made to don European-style clothing. By the seventeenth century, adopting a few articles of European-inspired clothing was seen as a status symbol among elite Africans in Africa, but most enslaved people were unaccustomed to their new European garments. In her study of the generations of enslaved people at Carter’s Grove plantation in James City County, From Calabar to Carter’s Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community (1997), the historian Lorena S. Walsh argues that early enslaved Africans were uncomfortable with their European-style clothing. Many found their new garments confusing and constricting. In her memoir of growing up on a Virginia plantation, A Girl’s Life in Virginia before the War (1895), Letitia M. Burwell relates an anecdote told to her by an enslaved person regarding how an enslaved African felt about his allotment of clothing. It was difficult at first to wear clothes, he recalled, and every chance he got he pulled them off, because “folks don’t war no close in he country.”


While enslaved Virginians wore the same basic types of clothing that other members of society wore, the fabrics of their garments were often—but not always—inferior compared with those worn by free Virginians. Some North American colonies, such as South Carolina, enforced what were known as sumptuary laws, which prohibited a person from dressing in a way that was perceived to be above his or her station. In Virginia, however, slave laws never prohibited an enslaved person from wearing any particular fabric or other adornment. Virginia’s omnibus 1705 slave law simply mandated that enslavers provide enslaved people with clothing. For this reason, plantation owners and other enslavers made provisions for slave clothing based mostly on fabric availability and cost-effectiveness. Enslaved people who worked in fields typcially were clothed in fabrics that were chosen for their durability and relatively low cost, not for their comfort or fashion.

Thomas Jefferson

Over time distinct fabrics became associated with clothing for enslaved people in Virginia. Some eighteenth-century enslavers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Landon Carter, clothed their slaves in homespun textiles. Only the largest plantations had the manpower, skilled enslaved people, and equipment to manufacture such material onsite, however, although some enslavers did set their enslaved laborers to work in smaller-scale production during winter months when fieldwork was at a standstill. A more common practice during this period was to import osnaburg fabric, named for its location of origin, Osnabrück, in present-day Germany. Osnaburg was a textile woven from strands of hemp or flax (linen). It was often left unbleached, and its coarse natural fibers provided a brown hue. Osnaburg was cheap and accessible, imported in mass quantities to merchants and directly to plantations, and was the mainstay for clothing for enslaved people in the eighteenth century, although it was also worn by indentured servants, artisans, and other laborers. Enslavers hired local tailors, seamstresses, and other skilled professionals to create garments for individual enslaved people from this fabric.

Cloth Samples for Slave Clothing

By the nineteenth century, domestically manufactured wool, cotton, and blends emerged as inexpensive and efficient fabrics to cloth enslaved people. One blend in particular, jean cloth, became standard issue for enslaved laborers in Virginia. It varied in quality from coarse to fine, with enslaved people with a higher status tending to receive higher quality fabric. At the same time, industrialization led to the domestic production and importation of cheap, ready-made clothes. These garments were purchased en masse and without much consideration of size, fit, or comfort.


Represents Our next door neighbor

While some enslavers provided their enslaved populations with clothes on an as-needed basis, the most common practice was to provide clothing twice a year, coinciding with the seasonal duties of their laborers. For enslaved people who labored in fields, who accounted for the majority of Virginia’s enslaved population, a summer allotment of clothing included shirts and trousers for men and gowns for women made of osnaburg, linen, or lighter-weight cotton. A winter allotment included a coat, shoes, and, less frequently, a blanket. Some enslavers provided their enslaved people with the fabric, needles, and thread to construct the garments they required. The historian Lucia Stanton has shown that Thomas Jefferson preferred this method. According to notes in his Farm Book, he provided slaves with fabric yardage based on their size, allocating one yard of fabric for children’s wear and seven yards for “common sized men or women.”

When enslavers provided just the raw materials for clothing, enslaved seamstresses, local tailors, and the white women of the plantation were called upon to pattern and cut the fabric for garments and to supervise the stitching. This work was done by hand until the sewing machine came into wide use in the 1850s. Scraps of fabric were used to make repairs and offered a chance for enslaved people to adorn their otherwise uniform clothing. Some enslaved people saved money to purchase small pieces of brightly colored or patterned textiles or added color to their monochrome clothing by using indigo to dye textiles.

Domestic Enslaved Laborers

The Washington Family

The fabrics and colors worn by domestic enslaved laborers were of a higher quality than that of enslaved people who worked in fields. Their clothing reflected both the position of the enslaved people themselves and that of the families who enslaved them. Often more visible because of their roles—serving the enslaver’s family and guests in the home and often traveling with them—they were also visible because of their clothing. In the eighteenth century, the male personal servants of Virginia’s social elite were clad in specific uniforms called livery. Often made of wool, an enslaved man’s livery resembled the three-piece English suit worn by his enslaver—breeches, a coat, and a waistcoat. The uniform was completed with a fine linen shirt, woven stockings, a cravat, and shoes. Livery colors were often based on the family’s coat of arms and included lace and other trimmings to the coat and waistcoat. Some owners further marked their liveried servants by forcing them to wear silver (cloth) collars. By the nineteenth century, livery largely fell out of fashion.

Enslaved women attending to female enslavers and her children wore gowns of calico or fine linen completed by a silk or linen apron. Because their dress reflected the style and status of the woman of the house, female domestic servants may also have received stays and corsets—the basic shape-building and supportive undergarments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Enslaved Field Hands

An Overseer Doing His Duty near Fredericksburg

Enslaved field hands typically received the cheapest and most uniform allotment of clothing. Because of their demanding workloads, they wore fabrics known for durability and longevity, such as osnaburg, cotton, and “plains” (a coarse wool). For their yearly allotment, they received osnaburg shirts, cotton breeches and trousers, hose or woolen socks, locally made shoes, and a cotton or wool coat. The costume historian Linda Baumgarten has noted that “there was a sameness and recognizability in the clothing of field hands,” adding that advertisements for self-emancipated slaves often made reference to “the common dress of field slaves.”

Enslaved Children

Enslaved Girl

Many enslavers provided only small amounts of fabric for children’s clothes and some provided no clothing for very young children. Thomas Jefferson, for example, provided one yard of linen for enslaved children living on Mulberry Row at Monticello, which was just enough to make a small shift or gown for an average-sized child. Ebenezer Hazard, who visited Williamsburg on June 8, 1777, wrote in his journal: “The Virginians, even in the City, do not pay proper Attention to Decency in the Appearance of their Negroes; I have seen Boys of 10 & 12 Years of Age going through the Streets quite naked, & others with only Part of a Shirt hanging Part of the Way down their Backs.”

Much like white children, enslaved children, both male and female, wore simple gowns throughout much of childhood. Boys wore these garments until they were old enough to be “breeched,” or given their first pair of breeches, or short pants, usually between the ages of five and ten. Boys wore their breeches until they became fully grown men and wore long pants, which came into vogue in the nineteenth century. Girls wore shifts until they graduated to the more mature attire of petticoats, jackets, and gowns, usually between the ages of ten and thirteen. Their transition to adult clothing, which came earlier than for boys, often coincided with the onset of their menstrual cycles and ability to bear children.

Shoes, Headwear, and Jewelry

In the eighteenth century, enslaved adults generally received a pair of leather, straight-lasted (i.e., having no left or right) shoes. Liveried servants received leather shoes with buckles, while children typically received no shoes at all. Jefferson, for example, did not begin issuing shoes to enslaved children until they were ten years old. Some shoes were imported, some purchased from local tradesmen, and others, called “country shoes,” were produced on the plantation when an enslaved person was taught the trade. In the nineteenth century, enslaved shoemakers continued to produce country shoes, while shoes called “brogans” were increasingly imported from the North. Wooden-soled brogans developed a reputation for being so uncomfortable and ill-fitting that formerly enslaved people interviewed in the 1930s recollected casting them off, preferring to go barefoot.

Slave Dance

Charles Crawley, a formerly enslaved man in Petersburg, remembered that “homemade hats an’ caps” were part of his allotment. The summer hats were made of plaited straw and woolen caps were distributed for winter. Enslaved women working in the home were expected to cover their heads with the same type of lightweight, white cap worn by other members of the household. In addition to wearing hats, many enslaved women continued the West African tradition of donning head wraps—often brightly colored textiles that were wrapped repeatedly and completely around the head, covering the hair, and secured with knots or tuckings. Men, children, and babies also wore head wraps.

Archaeological sites across Virginia and Maryland offer evidence of enslaved women fashioning necklaces or adorning their clothes with cowrie shells and glass beads. John Davis, an Englishman who taught school on a plantation in Prince William County, observed in Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America (1803) that when enslaved women traveled to meet their neighbors, “the girls never failed to put on their garments of gladness, their bracelets, and chains, rings and ear-rings.”

Other Modes of Acquisition

Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson

Some favored enslaved people received hand-me-down clothing as gifts from their enslavers. Sometimes, as was the case for Jenny Harris, the maid of Mary Willing Byrd of Westover, in Charles City County, enslavers left favored articles of clothing to enslaved people in their wills. Additionally, some enslavers distributed gifts of clothes to their enslaved laborers as a form of encouragement for a productive day’s work. Thomas Jefferson utilized this practice at least once. According to the 1847 recollections of Isaac Jefferson, a blacksmith who was enslaved on Jefferson’s plantation, Jefferson offered “a suit of red or blue” to the most productive worker in his nail factory.

Enslaved people borrowed or even stole clothing when the need arose. For example, when running away, many enslaved women stole articles of clothing that were not part of their yearly allotments, such as silk and calico gowns, which helped them blend into the free population.

Advertisement for Runaway Slave Peter

Nowhere is the clothing of enslaved Virginians better recorded than in advertisements for self-emancipated enslaved laborers in the Virginia Gazette , published in Williamsburg. Many notices describe the garments that runaways wore when they fled. An enslaved woman named Agnes, who escaped from Norfolk in April 1766, was wearing “a striped red, white and yellow calimanco gown, a short white linen sack, petticoat of the same, a pair of stays with fringed blue riband, a large pair of silver buckles, and wore a pair of silver bobs.” An enslaved man named Sam, who ran away in 1778, wore “an old pale blue cloth coat, buckskin breeches, patched in several places, and shoes and stockings.”

Sam’s enslaver also sought a young man named Tom, who “has with him sundry clothes, a white Virginia cloth jeans coat, a green cloth coat with a blue narrow cape, blue button holes, and metal buttons, an old mixed Wilton coat, two narrow striped Virginia cloth jackets, white breeches, and good shoes and stockings.” Another fugitive, in 1802, “took with him a pair of new brown cashmere pantaloons” and “a new black hat.”

The historians Shane and Graham White have argued that enslaved people also stole clothing in order to sell it to other enslaved people to help finance a runaway’s travels, while providing those who stayed behind a way to supplement their allotments.

Other enslaved people were able to purchase items of clothing legitimately on the market with money earned from odd jobs or by selling garden produce they raised in their off hours. The historian Ann Smart Martin has shown that enslaved people exchanged raw cotton for credit in John Hook’s Bedford County store in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With cash or, in some instances, credit, enslaved people purchased colorful ribbon, hats, jewelry, fine textiles, and even ready-made garments to supplement their wardrobes. They also purchased items that harkened back to the cultural memory of African fashion, such as beads and cowrie shells.

Regardless of how they acquired additional clothes and accessories, Shane and Graham White suggest that it was the drab combined with touches of finery that made the clothing of the enslaved unique. Additionally, as enslaved people accessorized their otherwise plain “uniforms,” the resulting contrasts of colors and textiles were visually jarring to many free Virginians, further separating the dress of the enslaved from the dress of the free.

  • Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (The Colonial Williamsburg Collection). Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Baumgarten, Linda. “‘Clothes for the People’: Slave Clothing in Early Virginia.” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts no.14 (November 1988), 27–70.
  • Martin, Ann Smart. Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia. Baltimore, Maryland: University of Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.
  • Morgan, Philip. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Prude, Jonathan. “To Look Upon the ‘Lower Sort’: Runaway Ads and the Appearance of Unfree Laborers in America, 1750–1800.” The Journal of American History 78, no. 1 (June 1991), 124–159.
  • Stanton, Lucia. Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
  • Waldstreicher, David. “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic.” The William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 2 (April 1999), 243–272.
  • Walsh, Lorena S. From Calabar to Carter’s Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
  • White, Shane and Graham White. “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” Past and Present no. 148 (August 1995), 149–186.
APA Citation:
Gruber, Katherine. Clothing and Adornment of Enslaved People in Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/slave-clothing-and-adornment-in-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Gruber, Katherine. "Clothing and Adornment of Enslaved People in Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, February 06
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