School of Arts and Humanities News

Whitney Stewart, “Fashioning Frenchness: Gens de Couleur Libres and the Cultural Struggle for Power in Antebellum New Orleans,” Journal of Social History 51, no. 3 (February 2018), 526–56

While travelers to antebellum New Orleans consistently commented on a pervasive French aura in the city, exactly what and who defined this Frenchness was in flux over the first half of the nineteenth century. From the city’s earliest days, residents constructed myriad and often conflicting definitions of Frenchness, but most versions associated the Frenchness of New Orleans with the city’s mixed-race character. Colonial society exhibited a tripartite racial structure that legally situated free people of color, many of whom had mixed-race ancestry, between white individuals and enslaved people. Culturally and socially, however, mixed-race Francophones, known as gens de couleur libres, had for decades existed on a relatively equal footing with white Francophones. But beginning slowly in the 1830s and accelerating in the 1850s, the tripartite racial structure of New Orleans gave way to a binary one. As part of this legal, social, and cultural shift, white Francophone New Orleanians began to dissociate Frenchness from its mixed-race past. They emphasized their whiteness as a way of associating themselves with Americans, thereby augmenting their own power and lessening that of gens de couleur libres. Elite gens de couleur libres countered by deploying cultural resources that demonstrated their Frenchness and its mixed-race essence. One of their most potent tools was fashion. As consumers and producers of French fashion, elite gens de couleur libres wielded their influence over New Orleans’s French material culture to counter the regressive race relations of this cosmopolitan city. Fashioning Frenchness: Gens de Couleur Libres and the Cultural Struggle for Power in Antebellum New Orleans