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  • The Material Atlantic: Clothing, Commerce, and Colonization in the Atlantic World, 1650–1800 by Robert S. DuPlessis
  • Joan Bristol
The Material Atlantic: Clothing, Commerce, and Colonization in the Atlantic World, 1650–1800. By Robert S. DuPlessis ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. x plus 351 pp. $29.99/cloth).

Textiles were central to trade circuits in West and West Central Africa, East Asia, and the Indian Ocean long before the modern world developed. In The Material Atlantic, Robert DuPlessis shows the centrality of cloth, as well as the importance of fashion, in the early modern Atlantic trade system that supplemented these existing systems. This cloth included cotton from West Africa, [End Page 409] India, and eventually England and wool, silk, and linen textiles from western Europe and England. DuPlessis uses textiles and fashion as a focus: he provides a wealth of information to reveal how location, gender, culture, class, and individuals' status as enslaved, indentured, or free affected supply, demand, and fashion across time. He also uses these materials as a lens to examine the Atlantic basin as an integrated unit with a great deal of uniformity in cloth supplies and fashion cross-regionally. For example, enslaved people across the region generally wore one garment covering the lower half of their bodies while doing agricultural work. Yet DuPlessis reveals illuminating differences across the region as well; silks were especially popular in Iberian world and checked cloth was popular in the British Americas.

This wonderfully comprehensive book uses an impressive variety of quantitative and narrative sources, including written texts and pictorial images, to illuminate the connections between producers and consumers in West and West Central Africa; the Cape colony; British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese America; and western Europe and England. Connections among these regions were facilitated by colonialism, the accompanying mercantilism, and the slave trade, so that the cloth trade was often done by European or Euro-American traders bolstered by European state authority, although African and Arab traders controlled the trade in some regions. DuPlessis shows how consumers in Africa and the Americas shaped the trade through demand. For example, when Native Americans in British North America wanted their favorite woolen cloth to be striped, the manufacturers in Gloustershire, England complied. DuPlessis also emphasizes the way that non-Europeans and European settlers outside the metropolis modified European dress regimes, focusing particularly on enslaved Africans and Native Americans who mixed their own styles of cloth and fashion with European styles to produce new styles. The Iroquois saint Catherine Tekakwitha was depicted wearing a garment made of European cloth that resembles European clerical clothing in its coverage and color. Yet DuPlessis points out that her cloak is likely a piece of cloth worn in Amerindian style and that the mid-calf hem and decoration resemble local Native dress as well. The one-piece work outfit widely adopted by slaves may also be derived from African dress. Amerindian and African fashions did not influence European-Americans and Europeans to the same degree although DuPlessis does point out that some Europeans wore Amerindian clothing as a kind of fancy dress.

The first two chapters lay out the basic information about cloth and clothing trends around the Atlantic (including information about nonwoven clothing: fur and body decoration such as tattoos, paint, and hair ornamentation), exploring the meanings that people attached to dress, particularly the European belief that bodily coverage was an index of civility. The second chapter examines the merchant networks and nonmarket systems (inheritance, non-money payment to slaves for extra labor) that supplied Atlantic consumers and the types of fabric that consumers wanted. The next chapters look at specific groups of people: chapter 3 focuses on native Brazilians and eastern North Americans and brings in other examples to examine how indigenous people incorporated European dress regimes both voluntarily and involuntarily (what DuPlessis calls "redressing"). Chapter 4 looks at enslaved people all over the Americas and what they wore. Owners provided them with some cloth and [End Page 410] clothing and they made money on their own to buy clothing for special occasions. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the dress regimes of free settler populations in the tropics and temperate zones, showing that...


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