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Material of Misery: Dress and Racial Violence in the Era of Emancipation

Fri, October 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Cedar

Abstract

While the North and South confronted the process of emancipation and the work of Reconstruction, clothing took on intense political meaning as people debated appropriate ways to cover and display the body. In a society that imbued clothing with transformative qualities—a society in which clothing could, literally, “make the man,”—black men and women dressed in finer clothes or those of former mistresses and masters threatened white southerners who vehemently resisted the new social order.

Drawing on material, visual, and textual sources, this paper examines clothing’s pivotal role in shaping the violent encounters of negotiating Civil War era social and political identities. The mere sight of a black man in uniform or a woman in a fine dress was enough to provoke violence against the wearer. These attacks often focused on the clothing itself—removing it, ripping it, desecrating it, burning it. The perceived danger posed by clothing’s ability to remake black men and women was central to white Southerners’—and some Northerners’—outrage at seeing freedpeople in finer clothing. At the center of these violent encounters were struggles over freedom of dress, the possession of garments, and possibilities for bodily display in the public spaces of the emancipated, occupied South.

Examining the looting, physical violence, and debates over African Americans’ clothing illuminates how the material world actively reshaped social engagement, political expression, and cultural continuity. By investigating the violence and politics related to clothing consumption and bodily display, this paper draws material culture to the forefront of public conflicts surrounding race at the end of the Civil War, offering new insight into the agentive role of clothing in the production of violence and misery.

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