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  • Torn Bonnets and Stolen SilksFashion, Gender, Race, and Danger in the Wartime South
  • Joan E. Cashin (bio)

Fashion, defined as the prevailing style of dress in a particular time or place, has often served as a means of self-expression as well as a marker of social class, political loyalty, and ethnic background. This has been especially the case for women. Since the 1980s, specialists in anthropology, sociology, folklore, museum studies, cultural studies, art history, and history have produced impressive work on the subject, with many of them exploring fashion as part of material culture or how women experienced fashion. Some writers have investigated the history of fabrics, such as the popularity of calico in eighteenth-century Britain, or certain articles of clothing, such as the mantelet, worn in the early modern period by French and Native American women. Before the advent of machine-made garments, clothing was a valuable possession. Clothes have always been highly charged with personal meaning because they adorn the human body and reflect the human life cycle.1 [End Page 338]

Fashion is very sensitive to historical change, but scholars of the mid-nineteenth-century South have given it little notice. This disregard is rather strange since the entire society was preoccupied with gender and its signifiers, fashion among them. Perhaps the stereotypes of white and black women that pervade popular culture, thanks to the movie Gone with the Wind, make the topic seem banal. In Within the Plantation Household, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese devotes a few pages to dress as a symbol of class, and she argues that plantation mistresses used fashion ruthlessly to establish their elite status over other women of both races. In Mistresses and Slaves, Marli F. Weiner emphasizes the overriding importance of gender in daily life and self-perception, but she too neglects fashion. She observes in passing that slave women who put on hoop skirts “mimicked white culture.” The two historians explain in different ways the gifts of cast-off clothing from planter women to slaves: Fox-Genovese says that mistresses discarded clothes to avoid being wasteful, while Weiner believes they could have done so as a sign of personal regard.2

Historians of slave women have done more on fashion, focusing for the most part on field laborers and their efforts to beautify their attire. Scholars have written less about house workers, who typically dressed better than field slaves; the few historians of slavery who mention cast-off clothing from mistresses portray it as a form of domination. Other writers address the international context, finding elements of an African aesthetic in the bold, contrasting colors in female clothing or in the wearing of turbans, bandanas, or other headwraps. In the only book-length treatment of slave clothing, New Raiments of Self, art historian Helen Bradley Foster concludes that, with the exception of headwraps, most slave women embraced western-style clothing. Moreover, she observed that they had “binary” perceptions of whites, who committed both acts of abuse and of generosity to slaves. Despite this valuable scholarship, more can be done on the history of fashion for southern women, white and black. We [End Page 339] need to explore fully the European-inspired fashion culture of the 1850s and the significance of clothes as material objects.3

Furthermore, historians of fashion have neglected another set of actors, Civil War soldiers. White men in both armies commented extensively on female attire, which became a political issue after 1861, and many of them took articles of female clothing from civilians of both races. They did so for a host of ideological and practical reasons, as we shall see. Yet they inadvertently reminded white and black women of their gender—of the fact that they were women—with some unexpected results. The fight over women’s clothing was part of the contest over all resources, tangible and intangible, that characterized the war. This article connects the antebellum background to the wartime struggle over female attire in the Confederacy and the Border States. Four sets of actors are involved: planter women and female house slaves, because they are at the nexus of fashion in the mid-nineteenth century South, and white soldiers in both...