Having a sense for high fashion isn’t a new concept here in the United States. People here have enjoyed getting dressed in fancy clothing for many thousands of years. And just as we do today, the sharp dresser of old had a wardrobe of everyday clothing and clothes earmarked for special occasions only.
Traditional American Indian clothing styles differ from tribe to tribe for a number of reasons. They used the materials available in their particular area to make the items they wore. Spiritual designs were incorporated into the decorative finish of many garments and spiritual deities differed from one tribe to another. Differing climates called for different styles, too.
Although ornamentation varied the most, American Indian clothing for men most often included breechclouts (or breechcloths), which are large rectangular pieces of cloth or leather which was tucked into a belt so flaps overlapped in front and back. In cooler climates or as the season dictated, American Indian men attached leather leggings to their breechclouts. In other places, men wore kilt-like garments and, in colder climates, fur trousers were worn. Before the arrival of Europeans on the continent, shirts were not common pieces of Indian clothing for men, although warriors in the Great Plains area donned elaborately decorated war shirts before going to battle.
American Indian clothing for the ladies of the day usually consisted of skirts or leggings. The design and length of these skirts varied from one tribe to the other and were influenced by the seasons, the climate, and the availability of materials for construction. Shirts weren’t worn in some tribes but, in others, ladies wore tunics or mantles. One-piece dresses were favored by the ladies in some regions.
Footwear for men and women alike was most often a sturdy leather shoe (moccasin). Mukluks, which are heavy leather boots, were worn in colder areas and many people in warmer climates just went barefoot on a day-to-day basis.
Tribal gatherings, sacred rituals, and other important social occasions called for the fancier items in the American Indian clothing collection. Style and construction of these special-occasion garments were basically the same as the everyday clothing but the decorative ornamentation made them special. Beads, feathers, ribbon, and other items were used to decorate these clothes. Elaborate headdresses worn only for such special events often designated the wearer’s rank within the social unit.
Once the European settlers arrived and the native peoples became displaced, clothing styles merged between the traveling tribes. The clothing of the newcomers from Europe was often used for trading. American Indian men and women started wearing shirts and other imported items but they kept their tribal distinctions by decorating these garments with traditional elements of style.
Today, many descendants of the American Indian are making clothing in the traditional tribal style, often using materials, designs, and decorative ornamentation as authentic as possible. The formal regalia worn for important moments in days long gone are still worn by today’s American Indians when they gather for similar celebrations.