- Until the 19th century, slave codes in certain states dictated what enslaved people could or couldn’t wear.
- Newly freed Black Americans shed their old clothes as a symbol of emancipation and self-identity.
- Fashion has continued to be a part of Juneteenth celebrations as a way to express freedom.
For centuries, Juneteenth has been a celebration of emancipation, community, and joy for Black Americans.
The holiday originated in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, when a Union Army general declared that more than 250,000 enslaved Black people were freed. The first celebrations for Juneteenth — a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth” — took place one year later in 1866 in Texas.
Now, the holiday is celebrated in a variety of ways across the nation, ranging from parades and pageants to concerts and cookouts.
Another visually and historically significant way Juneteenth is celebrated is through fashion, which became a way for descendants of enslaved Black Americans to reclaim a collective past, and to express their social and political freedom.
Clothing dictated by slave codes
From the 16th to 19th centuries, slave codes in certain states made slavery a permanent condition and defined slaves as property, employing similar language to those describing real estate. These codes also dictated what enslaved people could and couldn’t wear.
Under the code in some states, like Virginia and South Carolina, slave owners were legally required to provide clothing for enslaved workers. The clothing they did provide, however, was often uncomfortable, emphasizing durability over comfort or style.
Some slave owners gave their workers fabric instead of clothes, expecting them to cut and sew their own clothing, according to curator Madelyn Shaw. These fabrics included flannel, osnaburg linen, and plains, a stout and heavy woolen cloth that was often hot and scratchy to wear.
Like skin color, clothing was a visible mark of social status, used by the controlling white society to discriminate and separate. The Negro Law of South Carolina explicitly prevented slaves from “wearing finer, or of greater value than negro cloth.”
“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,” Harriet Ann Jacobs, an abolitionist activist and writer who escaped slavery, wrote in her memoir.
Clothing as a mark of freedom
Just as clothing was used as a means of control and separation, freed slaves reclaimed fashion as a symbol of freedom.
In 1861, during the American Civil War, newly emancipated slaves spent hours waiting in line to pick clothing of their choice from boxes of old and new clothing that were distributed from Northern states, according to Laura Towne, an abolitionist at the time.
The clothes that were given away were often soiled and old, but the newly freed Americans “were eager to discard the osnaburg and linsey that had been the badge of slavery, giving whatever they had to remove that physical mark of their former status,” Shaw, the curator, wrote.
During the first official Juneteenth celebrations in Texas in 1866, Black Americans ceremoniously cast off their ragged clothes and threw them into the river. They instead donned clothes taken from the plantations that had belonged to their former “masters” as a symbol of their newfound freedom.
Self-expression through fashion
To this day, self-expression through fashion remains an important part of Juneteenth celebrations.
Some Black Americans celebrate the holiday and honor their ancestors by wearing traditional clothing from the African diaspora.
Others follow a color theme: Red, white, and blue — the tri-colors of the Juneteenth flag — serve as reminders that enslaved Black Americans were first and foremost American. Another symbolic color trio is red, black and green, which are also the official colors of Black History Month.
“Red is the color of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the color of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the color of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland,” according to the Universal Negro Improvement Association.