Native American Clothing: History & Facts

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  • 0:04 Native American Clothing
  • 0:44 Overview
  • 1:38 Materials
  • 3:07 The Roles of Clothing
  • 4:13 Native American…
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Clothing is a big part of life in North America today, but there's a much longer history here than we sometimes consider. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of Native American clothing and see what it looked like over time.

Native American Clothing

Today, when we talk about the clothing of North America, we could end up imagining anything from the business suits of Wall Street to the board shorts of San Diego. Clothing in North America today is diverse and varied, depending on the climate and the needs of the wearer. However, this tradition spans way beyond the modern era.

Before North America was unified into nations like the United States and Canada, it was home to dozens of unique Native American nations. Along with their own languages, customs, and traditions, each nation had its own distinctive take on fashion. So forget Paris or Milan; if you want to examine an intricate history of clothing, start with Oklahoma.

Overview

In this lesson, we'll be dealing with clothing styles of many different Native American cultures, and it's important for us to remember that they did not share a sense of pan-Indian identity for most of history. These were diverse cultures, each with their own unique sense of fashion, but we can start by examining some commonalities across the continent.

Wherever you went, clothing was defined largely by the climate. In warmer months, most Native American men wore little clothing, perhaps just some simple short-like coverings called a breechclout and leather shoes called moccasins. Women wore a little more, often covered by a full-length dress, but also frequently wearing nothing more than a skirt. In winter months, people covered themselves in long-sleeve shirts, coats, and robes. It's important to remember that, given the largely nomadic nature of most Native American societies, most people only owned a single set of clothing.

Materials

One of the clearest ways to distinguish between kinds of Native American clothing was by the materials. One you should be familiar with is cotton. Cotton was first domesticated in central Mexico but was being harvested in the American Southwest by about 1200 CE. As a lightweight, breathable material, cotton was highly prized by the cultures of the hot Southwest and used for socks, skirts, and leggings.

In areas that didn't have the climate for cotton, or which couldn't trade with the settlements of the Southwest, other plant fibers were available. Nations of the Southeast used mulberry bark, those of the Northwest used redwood, and some in the Plains used sagebrush. The bark was peeled and pounded into a soft fiber that was woven into leggings, dresses, jackets, and shirts. Some cultures, notably those of the Southwest, also spun plant fibers into sandals.

The other ubiquitous material among Native American nations was animal skin. Particularly in the Great Plains, where plant fibers were scarce, animal skins were worked into a soft, suede-like material that was durable, warm, and long-lasting. The fabric was then sewn together using animal sinew and porcupine quill-needles. Many Native American nations also learned to treat leather to make it waterproof, which was essential for staying warm and dry. That same idea is also why many animal-skin clothing articles are covered in fringe; the design helps pull water off the fabric so it dries quicker.

The Roles of Clothing

With some of these materials and styles in mind, we need to consider what role clothing played in Native American societies. Just think of how much clothing means to us today; it was no different back then. An article of clothing was designed not only for its utility but also to communicate vital information about national and personal identity. What tribe did you come from, what family or clan did you belong to, and what was your personal story? All of that information was encoded in the style of clothing you wore - and the way that clothing was decorated.

Of course, some clothing had extra-special significance. Ceremonial shirts were worn only during religious rituals, for dancing, or for warfare. These shirts were made and decorated in ways that carried deep spiritual significance. Many Native American cultures also utilized headdresses as an important form of ceremonial clothing. Being so important, these headdresses often used one of the most valuable materials coveted across North America: feathers. Feathers were highly prized items, in some places only worn by rulers.

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