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Fashionable Rebellion

This portrait shows how free Black women in Spanish Louisiana turned an oppressive law into a celebration of individuality and culture.

Portrait of Betsy

François (Franz) Fleischbein, Portrait of Betsy, 1837. The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 1985.212.

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This video was created by the New-York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.

Background

By the time the Spanish took over the Louisiana colony in 1763, there was an established community of free Black people who lived and worked in the territory. The free Black people of Louisiana occupied an undefined position in colonial society. They were not under the control of the laws governing slavery, but they were also denied all the rights and privileges that came with being white.

The Spanish government wanted to more clearly define the place of the free Black community of Louisiana to prevent people of color from becoming too powerful. One major concern was that free Black women were too beautiful, and too many white men were attracted to them. In 1786, the governor of Louisiana proclaimed that all free Black women must wear tignon to make them different from white women. Tignon were head scarves typically worn by enslaved women to keep their hair up while they worked. By requiring free Black women to wear the same hair covering, the governor was marking them as related to enslaved women rather than white women. He was also forcing the women to cover their hair, which was considered one of their most attractive features.

The free Black women of Louisiana were more than up to this challenge. The tignon was widely adopted in accordance with the law, but women used colorful, expensive fabrics and tied them with ornate knots. They also decorated them with feathers and jewels. Instead of being a signal of the inferiority of free Black women, it became a mark of their beauty, wealth, and creativity, a subtle rebellion against a colonial government that wanted to keep them down.

About the Image

In this portrait, we see the beauty and style of the tignon on proud display. The subject of the painting is Betsy, the free Black housekeeper of artist François Fleischben. Historians do not know why the portrait was made. One theory is that Betsy commissioned this portrait. Another is that François admired her style and asked her to sit for him.

This portrait demonstrates not only what the tignon looked like, but that the style long outlived Spanish colonial rule in Louisiana, which ended in 1801. It is a testament to the tignon’s importance as statement of power for free Black women.

Vocabulary

  • commission: A formal request to produce a work of art.
  • Louisiana: Founded in 1682, this colony was the second North American colony claimed by the French. The territory stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. It was taken by the Spanish in 1763.
  • privilege: A special right granted only to a particular person or group.
  • tignon: A cloth wrapping that covered the hair. Free Black women in colonial Louisiana were required to wear tignon beginning in 1786.

Pronunciation

  • tignon: TEEN-yon
  • François Fleischben: fran-SWA FLYSH-ben

Discussion Questions

  • Why did the Spanish government pass laws governing the clothing of free Black women?
  • How did free Black women use fashion to fight back against systemic oppression?
  • Why is it important to know the history of the tignon? Of fashion generally?
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Themes

AMERICAN CULTURE; DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY

Source Notes
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