What our African – Jamaican ancestors wore for sugar plantation work

According to Buckeridge. S, (2004) Slave owners were legally obliged to provide clothing for their slaves annually, with a menial penalty for non-conforming.

This annual issue of clothing reinforced slave dependence and subordination. The type of clothing issued was meant to be suitable and practical for plantation work; of inferior quality to maintain social distance between slaves and their owners; and designed to cover up their bodies to reduce the risk of diseases and mortality.

The Europeans also perceived the exposed body as lewd and uncivilized.

The enslaved were therefore forced to adopt European dress styles as a sign of western civilization, power and control.

The type and amount of ready- made clothing imported from Europe and distributed to them, was evidently of a much inferior quality and style, when compared to that worn by their European slave masters.

Slave clothes were mass-produced and made from unrefined course material, were drab, basic, lacked style and removed all individual choice.

Some male and female slaves were also given ill-fitting White families’ worn out European styled clothes to wear to reduce the cost of clothing.

The amount of ready-made clothing distributed was also dependent on rank and status within the slave community, e.g. field slaves- house slaves- skilled men – unskilled men – women – children, all got different amounts.

Women apparently received less clothing than men, although they worked side by side with men in the fields doing the same kind of hard work. Some slave women received extra clothing as a reward for child bearing and some received extra clothing from White men in exchange for sexual favours.

Despite expressed abhorrence with the exposed or minimally dressed African body, when the annual minimum clothing allowance wore out, and no more was available for distribution, loincloths had to be worn by enslaved women and men.

By not giving additional clothing when needed, the enslaved were subjected to further dehumanization, humiliation and sexual exploitation.

Over time, as slave stock increased, slave owners sought to reduce the cost of clothing. They began to distribute the raw material, needles, threads, pins, scissors, buckles, tapes and buttons to the slaves to make their own clothes.

Fabrics distributed for making clothes included:

Osnaburg – a rough, course, harsh, warm cotton fabric from Germany, also used for making sacks for packing and other industrial purposes; and Pennystone – a course heavy woollen cloth, from England.

These were the most common fabrics distributed to slaves for clothing. They represented the cheapest grade of cotton, and were considered the most durable fabrics for rigorous plantation work. Other materials distributed included Calico – a cheap lightweight, striped or plaid cotton material from India, given to make dresses and blouses; and Kendal – a green woollen cloth to make jackets or other items of clothing.

The Bandana /Madras cloth – a red and white plaid (tie dye pattern) or red and yellow or red and orange checked material, originally imported from India in silk form, in the 18th and 19th centuries, was considered too expensive for the colonial market.  However British manufacturers copied and mass-produced the bandana into a cheaper cotton material and distributed it to make blouses, dresses, neck cloths and head wraps.

Plantation Dress Code for Women

Peasant Women wore loose fitting blouses, with a collar or frill. Skirts were long to calf or ankles, wide, gathered at the waist and tied with a string to hang loose from the waist or hip. Undergarments included the chemise and drawers. They also wore aprons or bibs.

A long apron covering the chest and most of the skirt consisted of 2 pockets, one for silver coins and one for copper coins. This is similar to the cover cloths worn by East and West African women over their skirts.

Head wrap was a popular feature of dress  – a tradition brought from West Africa.

The Bandana head wrap was commonly worn by peasant women, and indentured labourers and was considered a safe place for traders to hide their money. It had several other functions, for example:

  • (a) when worn with a cotta on top, it enabled women to balance load on their heads;
  • (b) protected heads from the sun and prevented, hid and protected injuries to the head
  • (c) protected hairstyles or cover up uncombed hair
  • (d) believed to cure headaches when tied tightly
  • (e) symbolic of community identity or personal status within the community
  • (f) communicate an act or state of rebellion/revolt
  • (g) secret place for militant slaves to store bullets during fighting

The head wrap was also worn for religious rituals like the Kumina and Poccomania.

Women also wore Sun Bonnets. These were simple work or garden hats, with a large brim and woven from plant fibre. Hats protected the head from the sun, and concealed hair that needed grooming. Hats also reminded women of their African ancestors’ tradition of covering the head during religious events. British missionaries also reinforced this practice, espousing that the wearing of hats was rooted in Christian scriptural teaching, therefore a woman’s head should always be covered in church during service.

Plantation Dress Code for Men

Peasant Men wore short or long sleeve shirts, rolled up whilst working. They wore trousers or dungarees made from course blue dungaree material (a coarse Indian calico) with large patch pockets.

They rolled up their trousers to the calf or knee whilst working and some held their trousers up with ropes or braces.

Plantation Dress Code for Women and Men

Women and men within the slave community wore Jippi-jappa Hats. These were broad brimmed cream coloured straw hats, woven locally within the slave population, and were less expensive than imported ones. They also wore hats that were locally made from lace-bark and animal hide.  Second hand hats and caps, manufactured in Britain, were also given to them by their slave masters to wear.

They also commonly wore beads. This tradition was brought from West Africa where beads were widely worn by men and women for aesthetic value and as protection to ward off evil spirits.  Jamaican slave women adorned their necks, wrists and waists with beads purchased from local markets, made from a variety of materials, including corals, gold and chains. The colour, size, shape and material used to make beads, or where beads are worn on the body, help the wearer to communicate, age, wealth, marital status, religious belief and sex.

Planters also gave their slaves beads to pacify them, in an attempt to make them better workers.

The majority of slaves, men and women, worked barefooted because shoes were not part of their annual clothing allowance.

Some women and men tried to protect their feet whilst working in the rugged fields with foot coverings made from leaves or grass.

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