Monday, July 26, 2010

Hats Off To You...

About 12 years ago, while strolling around an antique shop in Westerville, Ohio, I ran across what looked like an old accounting ledger. To my surprise, it was a college notebook from Wilberforce University’s millinery department, circa 1900-1910. I was thrilled to have in my hands such a rare and wonderful find! I snatched it up. The book is in pristine condition, the notes are very well organized, and the hand drawn illustrations are detailed and precise – it is an historical gem, giving wonderful insight into late Victorian/early Edwardian hat construction, cleaning, storing, and restoration.

Its author was a student named S.D. Barker, most likely a black woman, since Wilberforce University (founded 1856) is an historically black university. According to Patricia Hunt-Hurst (Oxford University Press, 2008), black women perfected their tailoring and millinery skills as slaves or paid domestic workers, where their tasks included making clothing for their master’s house (including his family and domestic servants), clothing for field workers, and quilts from discarded or worn clothing. It was common for wealthy plantation families of the south to “lent” their skilled slaves or freed domestic needlewomen out to other wealthy families for piece work. In some cases, this practice allowed black women the opportunity to make a small amount of money, and by the Civil War’s end in 1865, tailoring became one of the more common paying trades for black women (many with a previously established clientèle from former slave days).

But let us be reminded that tailoring was not always glamorous, particularly for our black sisters, who not only had to fight sexism in the trade, but racism as well. Hunt-Hurst points out that the tailoring industry (like most post-Civil War or Reconstruction industries) was fraught with prejudice, and despite their skill as exceptional dressmakers, black women very often found themselves stuck doing low-paying apprentice or piece work. However, by the time clothing became massed produced in factories at the turn of the 20th century and the retail department store became all the rage of the Gilded Era, black women found their tailoring talents in high demand for one-of-a-kind garments and accessories. Tailoring was (and still is) an honorable trade of precise skill, and colleges, particularly black colleges of the time, jumped on an unprecedented opportunity to satisfy a consumer demand for highly skilled tailors and milliners in the specialty clothing market. Wilberforce University was one of the more renown dressmaking and millinery colleges of the era.

So, hats off to you, S.D. Barker…

(To see more pictures of S.D. Barker’s notebook, please check out the Dressmaker's Album)

No comments:

Post a Comment