Native American clothing has a long, diverse history. Each tribe used similar techniques of manufacture, but that is where the similarities stopped. Tribes dressed distinctively as a claim of their heritage. Great pride was taken in each design. Initially, tribal attire was quite different from region to region.
Native American people believe that humans and animals are related and should treat each other with respect and kindness. Animals give themselves to humans for food and clothing. The hunter thanks them for their sacrifice by using as much of the animal as possible. It is said that to wear an animal skin inside out or in any different way than the animal would “is disrespectful to the animal.”
Common items of clothing for men, among the tribes, were breechcloths and leggings. Often the breechcloth is all men would wear. As it got colder, the men would wear leather leggings, for extra warmth, that were attached to their breechcloths. Some tribes wore kilts. Some wore trousers made of furs. The Sioux wore war shirts. In some Tribes, women wore skirts and would also go without a shirt. The Cheyenne preferred a one-piece buckskin dress.
Bark was stripped, dried, and shredded to make fibers which were then used to weave soft, comfortable cloth. The Pomo tribe wore skirts made from redwood bark. The Cherokee used mulberry bark. The Paiute and Washoe shredded the plentiful sagebrush bark. Tribes of the rainy Northwest Coast, such as the Tlingit and the Suquamish, used the bark of the cedar tree.
Many tribes used handmade methods of weaving, but natives of the American Southwest were the first group to develop a loom for weaving cloth. In 1200, well before the arrival of the first Europeans, Indians in the Southwest grew cotton and wove it into cloth. They also wove yucca, wool, feathers, and even human hair. Breechclouts, leggings, and skirts were often made of woven fibers.
Tribes living in colder regions needed thicker clothing, so they wore trousers, jackets, and hooded anoraks. Women also wore leggings under their skirt or tunic. The Iroquois and Pequot chose to accessorize their clothes with fur, claws and shells. Southeast tribes like the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and the Shawnee of the Plains used feathers and teeth.
In Native cultures, women often wore the same dress for years, so the garment was designed to tell the woman’s story. Symbols referred to her tribe, marital status, and the hunting prowess of her husband or father. A dress bedazzled with dozens of elk eyeteeth spoke of the skilled hunters in her family .
It takes about 40 hours of hard, physical work to prepare a hide properly. At first, a single animal hide was folded in half. The two edges were then sewn to create a straight tube dress, which made movement difficult, so women in nomadic tribes began making two-hide dresses. Garments were cut to take advantage of the natural shape of the hides. The tail of the animal was placed at the top of dress, and was a highly desirable neck embellishment. Later in the nineteenth century it became fashionable to remove the tail from the hide and replace it with intricate beadwork . Two-hide dresses evolved into three-hide dresses, with the third hide folded like a short cape over the two-hide garment.
Dresses were warm and weather appropriate. They were often additionally adorned with porcupine quills, bits of tin, carved bone, animal sinew, coins, animal teeth, fossilized shells, and the brightly colored glass beads that traders brought from the glass factories in Europe. Thousands of hours would go into the embellishment of Native American wear, often with the entire yoke covered in beads.
In the 1800s, the Cherokee Indians were the first to begin to adopt the culture that the white man brought to them. They began to dress more European, and even adopted many of their farming and building methods.
Mills in England wove wool specifically for trading with Native Americans and by the mid-nineteenth century, dresses made of this “Indian cloth” were common. The wool was often dyed a vivid scarlet or dark blue, with the un-dyed selvage incorporated in the design to fall at the edge of the garment. It was also in the 1800s that rows of ribbon, shells or beads were added as another design element.
All the tribes had similar styles of footwear, from moccasins to mukluk, although they too were often distinguished by tribe, via cut, beadwork and painted designs. Native Americans living in the East wore soft-soled moccasins decorated in zoomorphic or flower designs. The designs covered everything except the sides of the moccasins. The western plains Indians wore hard soled moccasins made from two pieces of leather. Designs on these moccasins covered the entire top of the moccasin but left the cuffs free of marking.
Once colonization began, tribes intermingled more, and their clothes became more and more alike. To understand fully the distinctions of each tribe, the years before colonization must be studied. As Native Americans had continued contact with Europeans and white settlers, they eagerly incorporated new items, such as the glass beads and silver ornaments previously mentioned, into their wardrobes. As they moved to the reservations, their new circumstances forced them to buy clothing from whites, which drastically changed the way Native Americans dressed.
To the Native American, imitation is not the highest form of flattery. Children dressing up as an Indian at Halloween, the Hippies of the sixties wearing fringe, and feathers in their hair, to Woodstock, and the current trend of pop stars to wear a headdress during a grammy performance, is highly offensive and is believed, by the Native American population, to disregard Indian spirituality.