Guest Post: Dress and West African Desire

Jessica Blake is a PhD candidate in U.S. History at the University of California-Davis, where she is completing a dissertation entitled, “A Taste for Africa: Imperial Fantasy and Clothes Commerce in Revolutionary-era New Orleans.” She is currently a dissertation fellow at the Winterthur Museum and Archive.

Linen Market, Dominica, by Agostino Brunias (1780), Yale Center for British Art

Linen Market, Dominica, by Agostino Brunias (1780), Yale Center for British Art

In 1808, the New Orleans trader John Joly placed an advertisement in the Moniteur de la Louisiane for a shipment of large Angola shawls (grands shals d’Angola), a rectangular cloth of African construction meant to drape over the shoulders. Joly marketed the cloth for the general consumer, making no indication that he considered it a product intended solely for use by enslaved or free people of color.[1]

African material culture has long held a misleading reputation as marginalized by white communities within the Americas. Scholars often place handcrafted baskets, pottery, and musical instruments as solely the domain of enslaved or free black communities. According to conventional wisdom, Europeans simply wanted to exploit Africa’s natural resources—enslaved persons, gum Arabic, gold and ivory—and had little interest in what they viewed as an inferior African culture.

In fact, at the close of the eighteenth century, French Americans’ imperial ambitions in Africa translated into an emulation of African fashion culture. When Napoleon advanced into Egypt, a northern gateway to sub-Saharan trade, interest in African-inspired fashion surged throughout Francophone slave societies. Newspaper advertisements for gauze veils and straw hats doubled in Charleston and New Orleans, and appeared in more than half of Savannah’s papers between 1793 and 1803. By donning emulations of African fashions, consumers in the French Americas felt like a part of the expansion of their French empire into the African subcontinent.[3]

Most of the “African” fashions worn in the United States derived from an imagined Africa. Gauze originated from Palestine. Few West Africans wore the material anywhere on their bodies, let alone as veils. Whereas palm leaf dress appeared into the Congo, straw hats did not. Many of the straw hats worn in the French Americas came from crafts workers in Europe or the French Gulf. Even the ubiquitous “African” turban was comprised of African and Indian cotton mixed with linen in Irish and French workshops. Actual African imports such as John Joly’s Angola shawls did exist, but in limited number.

Atlantic humorists, merchants, and consumers nonetheless tied objects such as gauze veils, straw hats, and head wraps to a composite African culture. The archives of the British Museum abound with satires by William O’Keefe and James Gillray, who mocked French Americans’ fascination with these styles in conjunction with their investment in African millet and tobacco farming. Despite this mockery, Franco-American consumers continued to don African fashions because of their dedication to their empire’s forays into Africa.

When French American interest in Africa declined, so too did emulations of the fashion culture. For much of the Deep South, the Haitian revolution soured the fantasy of an idyllic African landscape in the American mind. Printed accounts of the murder of Scot Mungo Park in the Lower Guinea area in 1806, and the kidnapping of American Robert Adams in North Africa in 1810, reinforced the perception of Africa as a dangerous space that was unreceptive to Euro-American colonization.[4]

Such attitudes seeped into clothing markets. Straw took on the characterization as “negro” attire in advertisements, and declined within Savannah and Charleston newspapers after 1804. Advertisements for gauze cut in half as well between 1803 and 1810.

Only within New Orleans did white and free black emulations of African fashion continue.[5] The Haitian revolution in fact renewed cultural ties between Africa and New Orleans. Between 1804 and 1809, nine thousand islanders relocated to the city. Refugee slaves expanded production of African fashion culture. Transplanted slave owners bolstered demand for trophies of African conquest. Their exodus kept African fashions broadly popular for another decade until fears of the black Atlantic entered New Orleans too. Ultimately, French Americans’ declining interest in African clothing reflected the broader decline of African influence in the Atlantic.

Focusing on emulations of West African fashion in sites such as New Orleans pushes African cultural influence into the late eighteenth century. By focusing on fashion, we expand our traditional understanding of the transatlantic transfer of African culture. Interest in African clothing did not simply move within black Atlantic networks. African culture tantalized French Americans who sought to demonstrate mastery over the African subcontinent.


[1] 5 October 1810, Courrier de la Louisiane.

[2] Recent works include Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Kariann Akemi Yokota, Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became A Postcolonial Nation (New York, Oxford University Press, 2011); Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[3] These statistics come from a once-a-month survey. See City Gazette (SC), 1793 and 1803; Georgia Gazette, 1793 and 1803; Moniteur de la Louisiane, 1802-1806.

[4] Maya Jasanoff, Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East, 1750-1850 (London: Four Estate, 2005); Madeleine Dobie, Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).

[5] These statistics come from a once-a-month survey. See City Gazette (SC), 1803 and 1809; Georgia Gazette, 1803 and 1806; Moniteur de la Louisiane, 1806-1809.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: New Orleans at 300: A Year in Review and a Look to the Future « The Junto


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