Slave Clothing and Adornment in Virginia


Slave clothing and adornment varied across time and across Virginia. In West Africa, where many American slaves originated, clothing was minimal, and even that was generally stripped from newly enslaved people just prior to the Middle Passage. In Virginia, slaves were outfitted with European clothing they often found to be constricting and uncomfortable. The fabrics used for construction tended to be inferior, with their owners 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, blends such as jean cloth became more common and allowed owners to provide slaves 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 slaves receiving higher-quality clothing than field slaves, 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 were also included in allotments, while women, reflecting West African traditions, sometimes wore cloth head wraps. To aid in running away, some slaves 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 slaves 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 slave-ship captains 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, explains 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 slaves were unaccustomed to their new European garments. In her study of the generations of slaves 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, particularly those who came directly from Africa, were uncomfortable with their allotments of European-style clothing. Many found their new garments confusing and constricting. In her memoirs 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 a family slave 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 slave holders provide their slaves with clothing. For this reason, plantation owners and other slave holders made provisions for slave clothing based mostly on fabric availability and what was most time- and cost-effective. For example, owners sought to clothe field slaves 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 slave clothing in Virginia: Virginia cloth (homespun) and imported osnaburg in the eighteenth century, and jean cloth in the nineteenth century. Some eighteenth-century plantation owners, such as Thomas Jefferson and Landon Carter, clothed their slaves in homespun textiles. Only the largest plantations had the manpower, skilled slaves, and equipment to manufacture such material onsite, however, although some masters did set their slaves to work in smaller-scale production, especially 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 (also oznabrig or oznaberg) 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 a cheap and accessible fabric, imported in mass quantities to merchants and storehouses in Virginia, and to plantations directly. Because it was affordable and widely available, most plantation owners chose this fabric as the mainstay for slave clothing. The fabric was not used exclusively for this purpose, however. The historian Ann Smart Martin’s analysis of customers and their purchases of osnaburg in the ledgers from John Hook’s eighteenth-century store in New London (then in Bedford County) found that white indentured servants, artisans, and other laborers also wore clothes made from osnaburg fabric.

Cloth Samples for Slave Clothing

By the nineteenth century, domestically manufactured wool, cotton, and blends emerged as inexpensive and efficient fabrics by which owners clothed slaves. One blend in particular, jean cloth, became standard issue for slaves in Virginia, and varied in quality from coarse to fine. Slaves with a higher status—and this was true regardless of the time and regardless of whether slaves labored in cities or on plantations—tended to receive higher quality fabric. At the same time, as the United States became more industrialized and cotton goods were produced more cheaply and in large quantities, the term “osnaburg” came to refer to any textile made of cotton, a fabric with a much different texture than the osnaburg linen of the eighteenth century.


Represents Our next door neighbor

Advances in the production and manufacture of textiles and clothing around the turn of the nineteenth century forever changed how people, both free and enslaved, acquired clothing and adorned themselves. During the eighteenth century, a few large-plantation owners could afford to set their slaves to work growing flax, spinning threads, weaving linen, and stitching their own garments. Most others imported fabric from England and hired local tailors, seamstresses, and other skilled professionals to create garments for individual slaves. By the nineteenth century, the rise of cotton production and industrialization led to the domestic production and importation of cheap, cotton, ready-made clothes. These garments were purchased en masse and without much consideration of size, fit, or comfort.

While some slave holders provided their slaves 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 field slaves, who accounted for a vast majority of Virginia’s enslaved population, a summer allotment of clothing included shirts and trousers for men and gowns for women, all identical and made of osnaburg, linen, or lighter-weight cotton. A winter allotment included a coat, shoes, and, less frequently, a blanket. Some owners provided their slaves 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 owners provided just the raw materials for slaves to construct their own clothing, enslaved seamstresses, local tailors, and even the mistress of the plantation herself were often called upon to pattern and cut the fabric for garments, and to supervise the stitching. The work was completed by hand until the invention of the sewing machine, which was not widely used until the 1850s. Employing a skilled seamstress or tailor ensured that the fabric would be used efficiently, eliminating as much waste of the textile as possible. Any scraps of fabric that were available were used to make repairs when necessary and offered a rare chance for slaves to adorn their otherwise uniform allotments. Some slaves saved money to purchase small pieces of brightly colored or patterned textiles. When time allowed and materials were available, slaves were sometimes able to add color to their monochrome allotments by using foodstuffs or, most commonly, indigo, to dye textiles.

Liveried and Domestic Slaves

The Washington Family

The fabrics and colors worn by domestic and liveried, or uniformed, slaves were of a higher quality than that of field slaves. Their clothing reflected both the position of the slaves themselves and that of the families they served. Often more visible because of their roles—serving the plantation owner’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 basic three-piece English suit worn by his master—breeches, a coat, and 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, liveries largely fell out of fashion, although households that continued the tradition required their domestic male slaves to adopt fashions similar to that of the owner of the house.

Female domestic slaves attending to the plantation mistress and her children wore gowns of calico or fine linen completed by a silk or fine 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 that were commonly used to create a female’s figure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Field Slaves

An Overseer Doing His Duty near Fredericksburg

Field slaves typically received the cheapest and most uniform allotment of clothing. Because of their demanding and active 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, in the winter, 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 runaway slaves often made references to “the common dress of field slaves.”


Enslaved Girl

Many plantation owners provided small amounts of fabric for children’s clothes. Thomas Jefferson, for example, provided one yard of linen for children living on Mulberry Row at Monticello. One yard of linen is just enough to make a small shift or gown for an average-sized child. (Slaves living in other parts of the estate may have received slightly different allotments depending on their duties.) 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 fully adult clothing, which came earlier than for boys, often coincided with the onset of their menstrual cycles and ability to bear children.

Slave owners did not always provide an allotment of clothing for small children, and it was not common for them to receive an allotment of shoes. 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. This is so common a Sight that even the Ladies do not appear to be shocked at it.”

Shoes, Headwear, and Jewelry

In the eighteenth century, enslaved adults generally received a pair of leather, straight-lasted (i.e., no left or right) shoes in their clothing allotment. Liveried servants received leather shoes with buckles, while children typically received no shoes at all. Thomas 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 a slave was taught the trade. In the nineteenth century, enslaved shoemakers continued to produce country shoes, while other shoes, called “brogans,” were imported from the North. Wooden-soled brogans quickly developed a reputation for being so uncomfortable and ill-fitting that former slaves, interviewed in the 1930s, recollected casting them off, preferring to go barefoot.

Slave Dance

Charles Crawley, a former slave in Petersburg, remembered that hats were also part of his allotment. In addition to two pairs of shoes, he received “homemade hats an’ caps … Our summer hats were made out of plaited straw.” Slaves might also receive woolen caps in their winter allotments. 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 techniques involving knots or tuckings. Men, children, and babies also wore head wraps.

Norfolk pointed out that she “generally wears large round gold ear rings and a cut glass necklace.” 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.” Archaeological sites across Virginia and Maryland, as well as the Caribbean, offer evidence of slaves fashioning necklaces or adorning their clothes with cowrie shells and glass beads.

Other Modes of Acquisition

Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson

A few favored slaves received hand-me-down clothing as gifts from their masters. Sometimes, as was the case for Jenny Harris, the maid of Mary Willing Byrd of Westover, in Charles City County, masters left favored slaves articles of clothing in their wills, to be received upon the master’s death (but no sooner). Additionally, some plantation owners distributed gifts of clothes to their slaves 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 and former slave on Jefferson’s plantation, Jefferson offered “a suit of red or blue” to the most productive worker in his nail factory.

Slaves often borrowed or even stole clothing when the need arose to supplement their wardrobe. For example, when running away, many enslaved women stole articles of clothing that were not part of their yearly allotments, such as silk and colorful 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 runaway slaves in the Virginia Gazette , published in Williamsburg. Some notices began by describing the garments that runaways wore when they fled. A slave named Agnes, who ran away 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.” A slave named Sam, who ran away in 1778, wore “an old pale blue cloth coat, buckskin breeches, patched in several places, and shoes and stockings.”

These ads often also listed garments allegedly stolen from the household, suggesting that these clothes may have allowed the fugitives to pass themselves off as free people. Sam’s owner 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 (and brothers) Shane and Graham White have argued that slaves also stole clothing in order to sell it to other slaves. This helped to finance a runaway’s travels, while providing those who stayed behind a way to supplement their allotments.

Other slaves were able to purchase items of clothing legitimately on the market. With money earned from odd jobs or by selling garden produce, they could purchase accessories and other personal goods. The historian Ann Smart Martin has shown that slaves even 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, slaves purchased colorful ribbon, hats, jewelry, fine textiles, and even ready-made garments to supplement their wardrobes. Slaves also purchased items that harkened back to the cultural memory of African fashion, wearing purchased beads, cowrie shells, and even coins on strings around their necks.

Regardless of how slaves acquired additional (and often very fine) clothes and accessories, the scholars Shane and Graham White suggest that it was the drab combined with touches of finery that made slave clothing unique. Additionally, as slaves purchased accessories for 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. Slave Clothing and Adornment in Virginia. (2021, December 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/slave-clothing-and-adornment-in-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Gruber, Katherine. "Slave Clothing and Adornment in Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (15 Dec. 2021). Web. 31 Jan. 2023
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