Tuesday, November 27, 2012

See How They Strutted: Philadelphia's Fancy Blacks

Silk Stockings plate  from Edward Clay's Life in Philadelphia series
Edward Clay illustration
Courtesy, Library of Congress

Ask me about black attire in the 1830s - in Philadelphia or anywhere else - and I'd have shaken my head. I mean really, what could they have worn? Simple smocks? Plain shirts and trousers?

I hadn't really thought about African-American attire as a signifier - that is, a finger pointing up  in somebody's face - until Erica Armstrong Dunbar mentioned satirist Edward Williams Clay's series "Life in Philadelphia."

Armstrong Dunbar, who directs the program in African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia, helped "unpack" the 1830s during a panel on the historical and social milieu for "If She Stood" and the Place Philadelphia project. She referenced Edward Clay’s illustrations as indicative of the racial attitudes towards the city’s blacks.

“For any of you who may have heard of (the series), or seen them, they’re these sort of reproductions marking black freedom: wildly dressed women as well as black men, suggesting that this new generation was … completely incapable of handling the responsibilities that came with freedom,“ she said.

Although the drawings are undeniably racist, they reveal much about Clay and his subjects. They opened my eyes to a possibility I'd never considered: even in oppression, black folks had style. And money, if Clay's illustrations are taken at face value. Look at the woman he drew in the print above. Clay mocks her request for "flesh colored" - read white - stockings, by having a clerk show hose that's black as pitch. The subtext is clear: she thinks she's as good as a white person.

And maybe she did. Because style wasn't just about looking good. Rather, these folks strutted because they could. They wielded agency.

When social scientists use the word "agency," they’re talking about the power to control one’s life. Here’s an explanation from Yahoo Answers:

“Obviously, when someone is being held in slavery, there are many aspects of that person's life over which he or she does not have control. So the historical question is whether slaves were able to stake out any small areas within their lives in which they could have agency.”

Although Philadelphia’s black residents were free, they were still oppressed. Clothing became more than fashion; it was a statement. Really a shout. Folks like Clay got the message; so did another Philadephian, John Fanning Watson. Here's what he wrote about "negroes and slaves" in 1845:
"In the olden days, dressy blacks and dandy coloured beaux and belles, as we see them issuing from their proper churches, were quite unknown. Their aspirings and little vanities have been rapidly growing since they got those separate churches and received their entire exemption from slavery. Once they submitted to the appellation of servants blacks and negroes, but now they require to be called coloured people, and, among themselves... gentlemen and ladies. Twenty to thirty years ago, they were humbler, more esteemed in their place and more useful to themselves and others."(emphasis mine) from "Annals of Philadelphia"
But Black folks just don't dress and stand around; they move. These dandies and the dandy-ettes dance. While looking at Clay's illustrations - and overlooking his condescension - I wondered how that 1830 strut would have sounded if set to a contemporary beat.  Keep listening...

This blog explores issues raised by If She Stood, a play by Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson for the Place Philadelphia project. Please subscribe to receive posts in your email.

 If She Stood will run for six performances - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8pm, and Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3pm, followed by Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, May, 2013 at 8pm and Sunday May 5, 2013 at 3pm. Tickets are on sale for the first weekend - BUY HERE.


  1. This image makes me think of Yinka Shonibare's work. He does elaborately detailed period clothing, fashioned in "African" fabric (really Dutch-made cloth based on Indonesian batik sold to Africans and now misunderstood as "native" to the Continent). Here we see free Blacks adopting European fashion as a statement on status. Shonibare imagines what these clothes might have looked like if these freemen and women had been able to (or interested in) making their elaborate clothes in European/African fabric.


  2. شركة مكافحة النمل الابيض بالرياض قمة الطيار هى من افضل شركات مكافحة الحشرات بالرياض ومكافحة حشرات النمل الابض والفئران والصراصير بالرياض
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