Ghost
Day dress, 1834-37 US, fivecolleges.edu

Gens de Couler Libre and the Creoles of Louisiana

I am so happy that you posted the portrait of “Betsy”! I particularly appreciate the tignon style evidenced in therein. I have worked with this image a lot and never expected it to pop up! You truly have a wonderfully diverse blog!

The reason that the young woman in the portrait wore a tignon was because of the so-called tignon law, a small part of a bigger sumptuary law continued by Spanish Governer Miró in the late 18th century.

 Les Gens de couler libre, a racially categorized class, to which “Betsy” most probably belonged, had specific rules and regulations regarding dress and interaction with white society.  The Tignon law forced women to cover their hair in public, women were also required to dress simply during the day.  That did not stop them from creating beautiful tignon in defiance and self-expression. Though it can be seen as a vehicle of oppression, the law was partially for their own protection.  If a white woman decided that she was offended in any way by a free woman of color, she could have her punished in various ways.

As a result an entirely new channel of fashion emerged. When les gens de couler libre did get decked out (usually at night in their own circles), it was entirely sumptuous and usually dripping in exotic fabrics, jewels and feathers with elaborate hairstyles.

Please be aware that the Creoles and les gens de couler libre are not the same people.  Certainly there may have been mixed bloodlines, but one group cannot be used to strictly define the other.

Also, a note on Creole society and the Haitian Revolution for Independence   

Creole society was extremely closed and elitist.  The definition of Creole in the sense of any age varies between historians.  Some say that Creoles were of mixed european and african blood, others that they were Spanish and French, and some claim that Creole was simply a term used to describe anyone born in the colonies.

The Haitian Revolution for Independence instilled fear and paranoia throughout the south. It may have been a victory as the first successful slave rebellion in history, but it was full of bloody suffering that no one wanted repeated in north America.  It negatively impacted racial relations between whites and free people of color as well as made life harder for many slaves with increased patrolling and harsher punishments.  Some refugees were welcomed individually, and certainly many fled to Cuba , as well as New Orleans, but no one wished a major influx.  The Creoles would have only accepted those of higher class into their closed societies in Louisiana-French plantation owners.  It should be noted though, that   individuals such as Dessalines opened their arms for any man, woman or child of African descent to come back to St.Domingue (now Haiti) to find safety.

Portrait of Betsy by Franz “François” Fleischbein, 1837 New Orleans
American portraits of black and mixed race men and women were more often than not made in New Orleans, if what I’ve noticed is correct.  This is probably because in 1804, while slavery was still allowed even in the north, the Creoles of New Orleans were welcoming (or at least allowing) refugees of the Haitian Revolution.  City and state officials thought that Louisiana had more than enough “free persons of color”, but the Creoles wanted a bigger population of French-speakers so that they could remain the majority.  Soon, New Orleans had the largest number of free blacks in the South.  I don’t know anything about how relations were between the races, but I’m assuming that there had to have been some respect for each other, especially because they were united in their fight against the invasion of the terrible German and Irish immigrants who didn’t speak French.

Portrait of Betsy by Franz “François” Fleischbein, 1837 New Orleans

American portraits of black and mixed race men and women were more often than not made in New Orleans, if what I’ve noticed is correct.  This is probably because in 1804, while slavery was still allowed even in the north, the Creoles of New Orleans were welcoming (or at least allowing) refugees of the Haitian Revolution.  City and state officials thought that Louisiana had more than enough “free persons of color”, but the Creoles wanted a bigger population of French-speakers so that they could remain the majority.  Soon, New Orleans had the largest number of free blacks in the South.  I don’t know anything about how relations were between the races, but I’m assuming that there had to have been some respect for each other, especially because they were united in their fight against the invasion of the terrible German and Irish immigrants who didn’t speak French.

Dandy fashion, 1831 France, Journal des Dames et des Modes

Dandy fashion, 1831 France, Journal des Dames et des Modes

Evening vest, 1838 US, the Met Museum
Waistcoat, 1835-45 England, Manchester City Galleries

Waistcoat, 1835-45 England, Manchester City Galleries

Ensemble, ca 1833 UK, the Met Museum
Housecoat, ca 1830 France, the Met Museum
Top hat, 1830’s England (Manchester), Manchester City Galleries

Top hat, 1830’s England (Manchester), Manchester City Galleries

Suit, 1830’s UK, Manchester City Galleries

Suit, 1830’s UK, Manchester City Galleries

Frock coat, 1828-30 UK, the V&A Museum

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