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Only the Clothes on Her Back: Clothing and the Hidden History of Power in the 19th Century U.S.

Laura F. Edwards, History; Margo Canaday, legal and political historian

April 12, 2022 · 6:00 pm7:00 pm · Labyrinth Books and Livestream

Labyrinth Books; Department of African American Studies; Humanities Council
Image of Edwards.

Join us for a discussion of Professor Edwards innovative recasting of US legal and economic history through the power of clothing for those who lacked power and status in American society.

This event is planned to be hybrid with a vaccinated, masked, and distanced audience at the store. To register for the live-stream, click here.

What can dresses, bedlinens, waistcoats, pantaloons, shoes, and kerchiefs tell us about the legal status of the least powerful members of American society? In the hands of eminent historian Laura F. Edwards, these textiles tell a revealing story of ordinary people and how they made use of their material goods economic and legal value in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War.

Only the Clothes on Her Back uncovers practices, commonly known then, but now long forgotten, which made textiles–clothing, cloth, bedding, and accessories, such as shoes and hats–a unique form of property that people without rights could own and exchange. The value of textiles depended on law, and it was law that turned these goods into a secure form of property for marginalized people, who not only used these textiles as currency, credit, and capital, but also as entree into the new republics economy and governing institutions. Edwards grounds the laws relating to textiles in engaging stories from the lives of everyday Americans. Wives wove linen and kept the proceeds, enslaved people traded coats and shoes, and poor people invested in fabrics, which they carefully preserved in trunks. Edwards shows that these stories are about far more than cloth and clothing; they reshape our understanding of law and the economy in America.

Laura F. Edwards is Professor of American Law and Liberty at Princeton University. She is the award-winning author of A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights; The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South; and Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era. Margot Canaday is a legal and political historian who studies gender and sexuality in modern America. She is the author of the award-winning The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America. Her forthcoming book is Queer Career: Sexuality and Employment in Modern America.

This event is cosponsored by Princeton University’s African American Studies Department and the Humanities Council.

This event is free. However, donations in any amount are greatly appreciated and go directly towards supporting Labyrinths events programming.


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