Episode 6 – Enslaved People’s Dress in the 18th & 19th Century with Cheyney McKnight

Hey Everyone!

Cheyney McKnight (Photo: LoomHappenings)

Today, we are very excited to share our newest episode for Fashion History with American Duchess! In April, Abby got a chance to sit down with her lovely friend, Cheyney McKnight of Not Your Momma’s History, to discuss enslaved women (& men’s) dress and clothing in the 18th and 19th century. Cheyney has been represented enslaved women in both centuries for a few years now, and has graciously shared her wealth of knowledge and experience in the field with us.

Here are some bullet points from our conversation:

– Shift in terminology among living historians from “slave” to “enslaved person/woman/man/people” as a way to give humanity to those held in bondage.

– How slavery in the USA was different than what has ever been seen before – “hereditary chattel slavery” & how it is passed down through the maternal line, even though the society at large was paternal.

Cheyney McKnight (Here)

– While slavery in the USA spanned approx. 250 years – the transatlantic slave trade ended in 1807- which then saw the rise of “natural increase”.

– Around the Revolutionary War (1770s) there were estimated 400,000 enslaved people in the USA. By the Antebellum Period it was 3.9 million. This comes out to a 25 – 30% population increase per year, and enslaved women at this time were giving birth, on average, to 9-10 children in their lifetime.

– We discuss the historical significance of the term “Going down river”

– Slave owners are buying fabric in bulk from manufacturers in UK/Europe to provide clothing allotments.

– Hierarchy of dress in the enslaved community.

– The textile related “reward system” that existed for enslaved people by the master of the household (child birth, tattle telling, work production, etc)

The Old Plantation, by John Rose, c. 1785, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1935.301.3

-Dress as a form of Resistance within the enslaved community.

– Trading of clothing and textile within the enslaved family group in households.

-What were the common textiles that enslaved people wore. (You can find Osnaburg Linen Here)

– How dress of freedmen and women differed from those who were enslaved.

Miss Breme Jones, 1785-87, by John Rose, Beaufort County South Carolina, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2008.300.1

Finally, Cheyney has been doing a great deal of research on different types of headwraps seen in images of enslaved women, and has begun documenting her recreation of them. She was kind enough to share some pictures & her citations below:

Cheyney experimenting with different 18th century head wrap styles.

Head Wrap inspired by: Portrait of a Young Woman, St. Louis Art Museum

Not Your Momma’s History Youtube Tutorial (Starts at 17:45)

Not Your Momma’s History Youtube Tutorial (Around 19:00)


A Mississippi Planter. June 1851. “Management of Negroes Upon Southern Estates.”
De Bow’s Southern journal and Western Review, 621-625.

Boturne, E. H. First Days Among the Contrabands. Boston: Lee and Shepard
Publishers, 1893. Print

Olmstead, F. L. The Cotton Kingdom: A Travellers Observations on Cotton and
Slavery in the American Slave States. N.Y: Mason Bros., 1861. Print

Kemble, F A. A Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, 1838-1839. N.Y: Harper
& Brothers. 1863.
Wares, L. J. 1981. “Dress of the African-American Woman in Slavery and Freedom:
1500- 1935.” Dissertation: Purdue University.

Abrahams, Roger D. Singing the master: the emergence of African American culture in
the plantation south. New York: Penguin , 1993. Print.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, roll: the world the slaves made. S.I.: Paw Prints,
2008. Print.

White, Shane, and Graham J. White. Stylin: African American Expressive Culture from its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U Press, 1999. Print.

Foster, Helen Bradley. New raiments of self African American clothing in the antebellum South. Oxford: Berg, 1997. Print.

Digital Databases for Runaway Slave adsThe Geography of Slavery in Virginia

North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements project

Documenting Runaway Slaves research project (Mississippi) 


The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose (ca. 1785–90), Beaufort County, South

Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Cultivating Tobacco, Sketchbook, III, 33, ca. 1797.

Agostino Brunias (Italian, ca. 1730-1796). Free Women of Color with Their Children
and Servants in a Landscape, ca. 1770-1796. Oil on canvas
Agostino Brunias (Italian, ca. 1730-1796). Linen Market, Dominica ca. 1780


  • Annie Belle

    June 10, 2017 at 2:23 AM

    I live in New Orleans and work at The Historic New Orleans collection. This is a very well done article. Thank you for shedding light on this subject.

  • Maggie

    June 10, 2017 at 9:15 PM

    Wow. This was both fascinating and terrible, of course. I never knew the numbers for the increase of enslaved people from Revolutionary War times to Antibellum. Thanks for the illuminating information. I'm glad people are re-enacting and teaching about the lives of those enslaved. It's important to know and not forget.

    • Abby

      June 12, 2017 at 8:06 PM

      Yeah…I didn't either…I had to edit out my weird vocalizations and all of my processing when she dropped those numbers on me. I'm still trying to process it honestly…I am so grateful that Cheyney and I could get together and do this..she's a rockstar!

    • Abby

      June 12, 2017 at 8:09 PM

      Thank you for listening! Dress history is as diverse and varied as the modern world we live in, and Lauren and I do not want to over look any group or aspect of dress history. If you have any suggestions, etc, please, please email us your ideas at [email protected] 🙂 <3

    • Abby

      June 12, 2017 at 8:10 PM

      Yeah! I am so glad Cheyney sat down with me – I adore her & I am so happy that she is sharing her knowledge with the world! <3

  • Anonymous

    June 14, 2017 at 2:55 PM

    Absolutely superb! So informative! Cheyney did an amazing job of bringing the human element into this overlooked and largely forgotten area of women's dress in the 18th & 19th centuries. Wow! Thank you!


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