Horns, Masks, and Women's Dress: How the First Klan Used Costume to Build Domestic Terrorism

Time Period
1861 to 1876
1877 to 1924
Media Type
Black History
Fashion & Textiles
Elaine Frantz Parsons

On December 8 at noon, Elaine Frantz Parsons delivered a Banner Lecture entitled “Horns, Masks, and Women's Dress: How the First Klan Used Costume to Build Domestic Terrorism.”

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Ku-Klux Klan became the first broad-based domestic terrorist movement in the United States. Although there was nothing new about white violence against black southerners, the Ku-Klux Klan reworked violence in a way that would fit a modern post-slavery nation. It sought to disempower and control rural blacks not only directly through violence but also by using bizarre costume and performance to create a climate of terror that could be spread both by word of mouth and through the powerful national newspaper network. Most “Ku-Klux” did not wear white uniforms like the Klan of the 1920s. Their varied costumes featured animal horns, fake facial hair, polka dots and reflective metals, blackface, and, often, women’s dress. Those who made and wore these costumes intended to define a new basis of southern white authority and to force freedpeople and their allies to acknowledge it.

Elaine Frantz Parsons is an associate professor of history at Duquesne University and the author of Manhood Lost: Fallen Drunkards and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States and Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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