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Juneteenth and the History of Clothing and Slavery

By Nisha Khater

Happy Juneteenth! At its core, the holiday commemorates the day that news of emancipation reached Galveston, Texas, 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered by President Lincoln. Beyond the event itself, Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, expression, and joy among the Black community and a reminder of the progress that is ahead of us for racial equality and justice.

One form of this celebration is the attire seen during the holiday every year, which itself is an expression of freedom. During the period of legal slavery in the United States, slave codes in many confederate states like Virginia and South Carolina imparted restrictions on attire, such as laws that slave owners would need to provide clothing, or that enslaved people could not wear anything "finer than negro cloth", a cloth that apparently felt like needles poking one all the time. These regulations meant that many slave owners would provide scratchy and hot clothing, some enslaved persons would only receive plain fabric and be expected to sow their own items, and most clothing was intended to perpetuate discrimination and separation.

Just as clothing was used as a badge of slavery prior to emancipation, clothes were then used to symbolize freedom in many ways following emancipation. Famously, freed individuals in Texas threw their old clothing given to them by slave owners into rivers on the first Juneteenth celebration in 1866 and instead wore clothing that used to belong to their previous "masters". In South Carolina, formerly enslaved people stood in lines for hours to carefully select their own clothing from boxes.

Today, fashion and dressing still plays a major role in Juneteenth celebrations. Many Black Americans recount wearing their nicest outfits to honor those who had no say over their clothing. Other celebrants wear black, red, and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag. Regardless of individual choices, the clothing seen during the holiday is bold, vibrant and serves as a reclamation of expression and identity, as well as a reminder of what justice and freedom should mean.

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