The American Prison Uniform: A Snapshot
In the late eighteenth century, when American colonists established detainment centers for criminals, they borrowed what they knew from Europe. Jails were disorderly, unsanitary, and lenient regarding regimen. People with means could purchase their way out of the discomforts of incarceration, buying or bartering for – among other comforts – clothing.
An act put into place in 1790, which was part of a so-thought progressive new system of penology proposed by a Philadelphia-based consortium of prison reformers, instituted a consistent manner of dress for incarcerated individuals. Introducing clothing manufacturing as a new system of labor within the prisons and jails themselves, the actual clothing that was being produced and worn now mimicked the general, modest style of the times: plain gowns for women, two-piece outfits of linen in the summertime for men, and of wool in the winter, with access to jackets and coats (source).
Instituted in Philadelphia, the benevolence of this act didn’t quite translate to other prisons in the U.S. at the time. In New York, for example, the introduction of a more consistent prison outfit shifted from a focus on normality, to a focus on explicit differentiation. In the later 1790s and through the early 1800s, uniforms were introduced to loudly call out the convicted nature of the incarcerated: they were colorful or other otherwise categorically differentiating, and were deliberately humiliating. (Read more…)