Enslaved people found an added measure of freedom in casting away the clothing associated with their life as slaves — and self-expression through dress remains an important part of the holiday.

By Bridget Todd
Jun 17, 2019 @ 5:00 pm
Alamy Stock Photo

Sometimes called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, Juneteenth is a holiday that commemorates when news of the end of slavery reached the far corners of the former Confederacy. It is celebrated to this day as a way to unite community, and like most celebratory gatherings of Black folks, a big part of it revolves around clothing. But Juneteenth fashion isn’t just about style for style’s sake. It is a response to the fact that the enslaved couldn’t use clothing to express themselves. Juneteenth itself is a way to reclaim and express social and political freedom, and the clothing people wear continues to be a part of that.

If you’ve never heard of Juneteenth, you can think of it a bit like Independence Day for Black folks. Abraham Lincon delivered the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that all people being held as slaves “henceforward shall be free," but that message was deliberately not communicated to all Black Americans, as the slaveholders were responsible for communicating it. It wasn’t until General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate States Army, resigned and Union General Gordon Granger was given command of the District of Texas that Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas. This informed people in Texas that, “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” And thus the first Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and 19th, was born. Rather than celebrating a particular battle or event, every June 19th, 46 states and the District of Columbia commemorate freedom from slavery and bondage. (Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota have not formally recognized Juneteenth as a holiday.)

How you celebrate Juneteenth depends on whom you ask and where they’re from. In the Southwest, there are rodeos. There are cookouts and special church functions. In some places they celebrate by throwing parades, concerts, and Ms. Juneteenth pageants. But one of the things I recall most about celebrating Juneteenth is the clothes. Just Google “Juneteenth Tee Shirts” if you want a sampling of the impressive creative prowess of Black folks celebrating freedom.

Clothing is an often overlooked aspect of the slave trade. Slaveowners in states like Virginia were required by law to provide clothing for their slaves, but they did so without consideration for comfort. Slave codes dictated what enslaved people could and couldn’t wear. For instance, some laws prohibited slaves from wearing anything that might be perceived as too fancy for them. The Negro Law of South Carolina prevented slaves who weren’t liveries from “wearing anything finer, or of greater value than negro cloth.” In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist activist and writer who escaped slavery, recalls: “I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery.”

For freed slaves, having control over your attire was an expression of freedom and a way to cast off their identity as slaves. Laura Towne, an abolitionist who taught freed slaves in South Carolina with the Freedmen’s Society of Pennsylvania noticed that freed people would spend hours waiting to choose and buy items from boxes of clothes sent from the North. The Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts explains that “the former slaves were eager to discard the [coarse] osnaburg and linsey [fabrics] that had been the badge of slavery, giving whatever they had to remove that physical mark of their former status.”

In celebrating the first Juneteenth, freed people found freedom in casting away the clothing associated with their life as slaves. According to Juneteenth.com: “During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former 'masters'.”

Jake May/The Flint Journal/AP

Dress remains a big part of Juneteenth celebrations today. When I was growing up, it was customary to wear your nicest outfits as a way to honor the enslaved who had no control over their clothing choices. A common theme is dressing in red, white, and blue to highlight the “Independence Day for Black folks” vibe of the holiday. It’s also a nod to the Juneteenth flag, which sports bright red and blue stripes and a bold white star overlay to represent the "new star" on the horizon for our community.

Others opt to wear red, black, and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag. And of course, some celebrate Juneteeth with a white party with guests sporting crisp linens and white cotton dresses (never mind that white clothes are a dangerous prospect considering red foods and strawberry soda are Juneteenth menu staples).

Even if you’re not donning red, black, and green to celebrate Juneteenth, it's important to memorialize the lives and legacies of the Black Americans who are the foundation of our country. The Atlantic slave trade may be behind us, but racial division is far from a thing of the past. The traditions that unite us are more important than ever.

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