Last weekend, realizing of the vision of artist Dread Scott, hundreds of volunteers—in costume as 19th-century enslaved people—marched 26 miles to New Orleans’s French Quarter in a reenactment of the Louisiana Slave Rebellion. The rebellion, which occurred on Jan. 8, 1811, and was suppressed by white militia two days later, was the largest slave uprising in American history, also known as the 1811 German Coast Uprising.
It was an ambitious undertaking drawing participants from all walks of life, including fellow artists, academics, and even a member of the New Orleans Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and Equity. But equally astounding was the event’s execution, which involved not only recruitment but rehearsals, as well as the monumental task of costuming each volunteer—an effort tantamount to costuming a large-scale, big-budget period film.
So, it was with piqued interest on this #ThrowbackThursday that I read Fashionista’s interview with Scott and New Orleans-based veteran costumer Alison L. Parker (I Am Legend, Girls), who helped bring this historic moment back to life for a new generation.
“As they walked past strips malls, oil refineries, gas stations and gated subdivisions, the procession was meant to highlight continuities between Louisiana’s plantation past and modern-day legacies of slavery that continue to be reflected in Louisiana’s levels of inequality,” writes Fashionista’s Jonathan Square. “Costuming was key to showing how the past intersects with the present. It also allowed enslaved people to be portrayed as complex individuals who expressed their multifarious identities through fashion.”
Parker, a costumer with a sustainable focus, is the founder ricRACK, a nonprofit created to repurpose costumes from TV, film, and theater which also trains community members to sew. RicRACK’s intent is to encourage less textile waste by teaching its members to repurpose old clothing.
In the spirit of education and community, Parker and a team of volunteers that included “costumers, community activists, quilters and a member of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe” formed sewing circles to create the reenactment’s hundreds of wardrobe pieces. And consistent with Parker’s ethos, the focus remained on sustainability.
“All of the garments for the reenactment were made from donations of old costumes, deadstock fabrics or repurposed contemporary clothing,” Fashionista reports. “[M]en’s shirting was repurposed by removing buttons, tattering edges, and distressing fibers. Blazers were gutted by removing pockets, shoulder pads, and other tell-tale modern details.”
“There were even people there who didn’t know how to sew. We gave them a seam ripper and let them deconstruct garments,” said Parker, who preceded the process with three years’ research, drawing on period artwork and documents from Brazil and the Caribbean when faced with a dearth of images of 19th-century American slave dress. As Fashionista reported, the inspiration behind the costumes gave further dimension and perspective on the uprising itself:
Some participants were outfitted in neutral and off-white linens and cottons that represent the rough garments with which most enslaved peoples were often supplied on plantations, while other volunteers were dressed as escaped slaves who lived on the margins of New Orleans’s slave society. Inspired by descriptions of enslaved peoples’ “risible self-styling,” these escaped slaves (or “maroons”) were outfitted in a mishmash of pieces that could have been commandeered from plantation owners.
Like the reenactment itself, the costumes—which included modern, individualistic elements like tattoos and noserings—were intended to remind viewers that blackness is not, and never was a monolithic, faceless, complacent entity.
“Media and popular culture often give the impression that most enslaved people wore burlap sacks; that impression turns these people into an undifferentiated mass without agency,” says Scott. “We wanted to deconstruct that, as a way of giving people back their individual agency.”