On Jan. 8, 1811, a few hundred enslaved peoples in south Louisiana revolted against their masters and began marching towards New Orleans; the rebellion was suppressed two days later by a band of white militiamen and the rebels were hung or executed by a firing squad. This under-acknowledged episode in American history is referred to as the 1811 German Coast Uprising, which was the largest slave rebellion in North America. Last weekend, artist Dread Scott (along with hundreds of volunteers) recreated this pivotal event, retracing the 26-mile trek of the enslaved rebels from outside of New Orleans to the French Quarter.
Costuming was integral to telling this history, with each volunteer wearing period costumes created for the reenactment, armed with machetes, replicas of muskets and improvised weapons. It was costumer Alison L. Parker's task to recreate the dress of these enslaved rebels. Parker, who has over 20 years of experience doing costuming for films and TV series, like "Rachel Getting Married," "I Am Legend," "American Ultra" and "Girls," moved to New Orleans in 2007 to do costuming for the 2009 film "Black Water Transit."
"The city post-Katrina had a very bohemian, anything goes, anti-bureaucracy feel," says Parker. "I was in a bar where someone walked in with a monkey on their shoulder, and no one batted an eye. It was the norm. And I thought, 'I could live here.'"
While working on the set of "Girls," Parker heard of an NPR interview with ethical fashion activist Elizabeth Kline. That moment was a game-changer. Parker would go on to found ricRACK, a non-profit that reuses abandoned and unwanted costumes from TV, film and theatre, as well as teaching individuals how to sew in an effort to promote the reduction of textile waste through the repurposing of old clothing. Parker has challenged herself to make sustainable costuming practices key to any project that she is involved in.
Accordingly, Parker and her team of volunteers took a grassroots, eco-friendly approach to the reenactment's costuming, including sewing circles and donations from the community. Sewing circles began meeting last year and volunteers included costumers, community activists, quilters and a member of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. "There were even people there who didn't know how to sew. We gave them a seam ripper and let them deconstruct garments," says Parker.
All of the garments for the reenactment were made from donations of old costumes, deadstock fabrics or repurposed contemporary clothing. Parker created an instructional manual for converting contemporary garments to clothing worn by enslaved people; for example, men'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.
The research for the reenactment started three years ago when Parker joined the project. Given the dearth of images of enslaved peoples in south Louisiana from that era, Parker depended on artwork from Brazil and the Caribbean, as those places have a more robust visual record of enslaved people's dress. Her research was based on analyses of period artwork (by artists like Jean-Baptiste Debret and Agostino Brunias), the consultation of archival documents (like runaway slave ads), and the close reading of historical monographs about the experience of enslaved peoples.
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. "The costumes here will be honest. They will be ruffled and dirty, but diversely fashioned," says Scott.
The beauty of costuming is that costume designers are allowed to take creative licenses and don't necessarily have to be too beholden to historical accuracy. Beyond using period garments repurposed from donated garments, participants were allowed to incorporate anachronistic accessories, like nose rings and tattoos, into their period costuming. 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.
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. "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 Dread Scott, an artist and the reenactment's organizer. "We wanted to deconstruct that, as a way of giving people back their individual agency."
Though the 1811 German Coast Uprising was ultimately suppressed, Parker, Scott and the team of volunteers have made sure that this important episode in American history will not be forgotten. Enslaved people wore more than shackles and they used their fashioned bodies to fight for greater freedom.