New Raiments of Self: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South. By Helen
Bradley Foster. (New York: New York University Press, 1997. Pp. ix+359.
Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, epilogue, appendices, bibli-
ography, index. ISBN 1-85973-189-9. $19.95, paper; -189-8, $46.oo, cloth).
In New Raiments of Self, a title in the Dress, Body, Culture series from Berg
Publishers, Helen Bradley Foster chronicles sources on clothing worn by African
American slaves in the South. Her focus centers on the years immediately prior
to the American Civil War. She relies primarily on the Federal Writers' Project
(FWP) slave narrative interviews (hereafter referred to as Narratives) conducted
in the 1930s, supplemented by some fugitive slave accounts and an amalgam of
fiction, folklore, and travel accounts. Bradley Foster asserts that clothing enabled
slaves to construct and reinforce cultures and communities distinct from those
of the hegemonic white social structure.
An early chapter traces the roots of the African American experience to
Africa, primarily West Africa. Most Africans wore not only animal skins as cover-
ings but woven cloth as well. As part of the international marketplace, cloth
became a major item of exchange for the human bondage of Africans. Other
chapters address the making, wearing, and embellishing of clothing, including
head coverings and footwear.
Issues regarding the wearing of clothing comprise the bulk of this study.
Slaves understood clothing as marking status in the social structure. This not
only reflects attitudes of whites in the South, but is found in West African tradi-
tions as well. Although whites used removal or deprivation of clothing as humili-
ation and/or punishment, Bradley Foster convincingly maintains that "in the
matter of clothing . . . the hegemony of whites was never absolute" (p. 165).
Indeed, the most persuasive argument in the book is that the unique adjust-
ments by slaves to the types and styles of their clothing effectively and powerfully
preserved ancestral traditions and resisted the effects of enslavement.
Helen Bradley Foster accuses U.S. history, "like all history," of telling a tale of
"mostly men" who were consumed with conquering, enslaving, or subjugating
other men. Such tales are "not the story of mankind at all." Indeed, "the error
for humanity is that we continue to write our histories in such a way; the tragedy
is that we continue to believe them," she asserts (p. 8). Given such a perspective,
she employs the style and methods of folklore instead of using those of the disci-
pline of history. She admits that she relies on "folk memory" rather than on
"more 'official' documents" (p. 1o). Her statements reveal an antiquated and
caricatured view by nonhistorians of the discipline-a view which has not been
accurate for over three decades and, arguably, never entirely true. She dismisses
as "objections" well-established considerations-pioneered by the brilliant John
W. Blassingame and others-the historian should bear in mind when using the
Narratives. No legitimate social historian of today would object to the Narratives
as invaluable and irreplaceable historical documents, but that does not mean
that we endorse the indiscriminate use of them with little consideration for stan-
dards of evidence in the use of sources. In addition, this study might have bene-
fitted from more exposure to the historical contexts of both the antebellum
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 102, July 1998 - April, 1999. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101219/. Accessed May 7, 2015.