Scholars of American religion are increasingly attentive to material culture as a rich source for the analysis of religious identity and practice that is especially revealing of the relationships among doctrine, bodily comportment, social structures, and innovation. In line with this focus, this article analyses the ways nineteenth-century African American Methodist women turned to dress as a tool to communicate religious and political messages. Though other nineteenth-century Protestants also made use of the communicative powers of dress, African American women did so with a keen awareness of the ways race trumped clothing in the semiotic system of nineteenth-century America. Especially for women entering into public fora as preachers and public speakers, dress could act as a passport to legitimacy in an often hostile setting, but it was not always enough to establish oneself as a Christian lady. Considering the related traditions of plain dress and respectability within the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, this essay finds that AME women cultivated respectability and plainness within discourses of authenticity that tried——with some ambivalence ——to use dress as a marker of the true soul beneath the fabric. Based primarily on the autobiographical and journalistic writings of women such as Jarena Lee, Amanda Berry Smith, Hallie Q. Brown, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, as well as accounts from AME publications such as the Christian Recorder and the Church Review, and other church documents, the essay also draws on the work of historians of African American women and historians of dress and material culture. For nineteenth-century AME women, discourses of authenticity could be both a burden and a resource, but either way they were discourses that were often remarkably critical, both of self-motivation and of cultural markers of class, race, and gender in a world that made a fetish of whiteness.
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