What do you think of when you imagine Native American fashion? Headdresses? Buckskin leggings and war paint? Hipsters inappropriately appropriating “native chic”?
The first think Katie thinks about is old. 12,000 years old, to be exact. The first fashions she thinks of are perhaps some of the very first to have existed in North America – beads of bird bones, hematite, and red ochre that were made during the last Ice Age. Fibers and skins don’t preserve, but those beads did. Those beads, that may have been sewn onto clothing (because these cultures were carving needles), strung around a neck, tied into hair, they’re beautiful.
The first thing Chelsie thinks of when she think of Native Americans are colourful beads and moccasins. And, we think it’s safe to say, that’s a common image that resides in many people’s minds. But it’s also a very narrow one. While every culture made a style or styles of leather footwear (go here for a map of the different cultural styles and some amazing photographs), the stereotypical images of a beaded moccasin is a Plains culture one (as are our images of tipis, headdresses, and pretty much everything else Buffalo Bill and Hollywood deemed sensational enough). Also, while amazing intricate beadwork existed long before the arrival of Europeans, the brightly colored beads seen on clothing artifacts are a result of the contact and reservation-eras of American Indian history, where beads were used in trade and later available to tribes that had been forced onto reservations.
While it’s impossible to adequately cover the entire stylistic history of every American Indian culture (and we would be foolish to even try), here’s a little bit of historical background and a lot of fantastic references.
First western contact is dated by archaeologists at around 900CE, while more detailed records date back to the early 1500 and 1600s. Native Americans lived in different climates, and thus logically dressed differently, for the elements.
Natives in American Southwest were among the first group to develop a loom to weave cloth in 1200CE. They grew cotton which they wove into cloth, and also wove yucca, wool, feathers, and hair into cloth. I don’t think they get much credit for this.
"Ojibwa style wool strap dress with detachable sleeves and red wool beaded leggings." Reproduction by Zender-Dale Arts
Before European contact plant fibers were woven into clothing, especially tree bark, which was stripped from tries, dried and shredded, to weave comfortable clothing, including skirts, aprons, shirts, belts, hats, capes, and even raincoats. Today we wear bamboo clothing, hemp clothing, and even fleece (sometimes a derivative of recycled plastic).
"Front of a hemp and wool twined and netted bag." Reproduction by Zender-Dale Arts
Native Americans wore snug or loose fitting leggings underneath their clothes. Leggings were often two tubes of animal hide, (usually dear, but also including beaver, buffalo, skunk, and even salmon skin), covering each leg individually. In the winter, leggings were fur lined, or fur side facing in, and had attached feet. (Is anyone else thinking of fleece lined tights? If you know where to get these illusive treasures, do share!) Natives in the Arctic did not wear leggings, but instead wore full length pants to protect themselves from the elements. Leggings were tied with string, belted, sashed at the waist, gartered, or tied at the knee.
"Brain tanned deer skin side seamed leggings with porcupine quilled garters. Quilled mocassins with ribbon work flaps. Knee breeches and linen hunting shirt." Reproduction by Zender-Dale Arts
It also needs to be noted that, as the clothing of existing and continuing culural groups, the timeline for American Indian fashion isn’t over. A reference that Katie loves on the current and dynamic world of American Indian designers is Jessica R. Metcalfe’s blog Beyond Buckskin. Be sure to read her review of Fashion Week and the presence of native and/or primitivist aesthetics.
And while there have already been several fantastic discussions on the recent appropriation of psuedo-American Indian, we invite you to revisit those conversations.
Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 2: Early Cultures Across the Globe. Detroit: UXL, 2004. 385. Gale Virtual Reference Library.