Research

Current Project

Image: William Waud. Returned prisoners of war exchanging their rags for new clothing on board Flag of Truce boat New York. 1864. Library of Congress

Image: William Waud. Returned prisoners of war exchanging their rags for new clothing on board Flag of Truce boat New York. 1864. Library of Congress.

The Fabric of War: Clothing, Culture, and Violence in the American Civil War Era

At the center of this project is the question of how people’s relationship to their “stuff”—and to their clothing in particular—shaped the experiences, outcomes and ongoing reverberations of the political and cultural turmoil of emancipation and the American Civil War. The Fabric of War weaves together textual, visual and material sources to investigate how clothing was used to wage war and to promote and contest social and cultural identities throughout the United States in the 1860s. This is a history of the intimate, visceral nature of the American Civil War and how black and white women and men used clothing and dress practices to rework and resist the shifting boundaries between slavery and freedom, the gendered dimensions of daily life and citizenship, and the government’s role in civil society.

On both sides, clothing was available as a key instrument for civilians, soldiers and the government to wage war—not only as a critical element of supply, but also as a means of fostering loyalties, shaping identities, and making people into citizens. But clothing, at times, proved better at giving the appearance of racial integration rather than establishing acceptance; better at initially arousing than fully maintaining patriotic fervor; better at cultivating resentment than loyalty; more effective at communicating resistance and division than solidarity. By the 1870s, it was abundantly clear that in order to be recognizable as a citizen of the United States, a person had to not only act—but also dress— the part.

You can read more about my research at Process: a blog for american history.

A public lecture I delivered in 2012 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History offers an overview of clothing manufacture in the Civil War era. It is available on the Smithsonian Showcase:

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