What to wear — Traditional Style

horseheader11.jpgHowdy!  Oki Napi!  Han Kola!

I’ve been hesitating to make this post, only because I am not talented as a seamstress, and so there are many things about it that I don’t understand.  But I have many friends who sew — and actually like it — I rarely sew because I’m so bad at it — and I poke myself so often, that I usually give up in frustration.  This post is inspired by a couple of friends that I talk with almost daily on the interent.  They both sew and one quilts.  And so I thought I’d tackle this subject, because it is one dear to a woman’s heart.  What to wear and how to look as beautiful doing it as possible.  I’ll also be giving away a book today to some lucky person who leaves a comment here today.  The give-away, however, is limited to the 50 states in the United States, or to Canada.  Void where prohibited.

powwow[1]This is a picture taken a few years ago with friends (I’m on the left).  This is pow-wow regalia that we are wearing.  Both Elaine and I are wearing fancy dance regalia and Patricia on the left is wearing Northern Traditional dress.  This is the more modern way of dressing for the pow-wow circuit.  However, some things haven’t changed since the days of the long-ago.  On our feet are decorated moccasins and coming up from them are leggings that match and fit into the moccasins .  There are feathers in our hair and we are all wearing our hair in braids — and there is much beadwork, particularly on Patricia’s outfit.  As a note, when I was beading my choker for this outfit, Patricia helped me.  Interestingly with her help, I was actually able to bead.  But to this day, left on my own, I must admit that I’m lost.

getimageexe[1]But let’s go back to the days of yore.  Without needle and thread, how did the Indians make clothes?  From the book, Tradition Dress by Adolf Hungry Wolf, the tools of the Native Americans were “a knife for cutting, an awl of pointed bone for making holes, and strips of sinew to sew the materials together…” 

On the plains the common material for clothes was buckskin.  But what exactly is buckskin?  It’s actually deer hide, which is considered the best leather because it’s not only durable, but it’s soft, yet wears very tough.  But probably one of its best features is that it’s easy to sew with — or so says Adolph Hungry Wolf in his book, Traditional Dress. 

In the old days, Indians used the brains of animals to tan their hides.  While I can’t tell you the exact process, I can tell you that “Indian-tanned” hides — even today — feel smooth and like velvet to the touch — not only that, they dry soft and flexible, a good point, since many a man or woman lived and worked in the rain…or swam across streams.

identity_13[1]The picture above and to the left is called a three-hide dress.  Over to the right here is the modern version of a three hide dress.  The woman in the above picture is Cheyenne.  The three hide dress was made originally with two hides making the skirt and an overlay on top much like a poncho.  At first the poncho wasn’t sewn to the dress, but in the more modern age, they are often sewn to the dress.  As a note, the hides of the animal were often kept in their original shape in order to honor the animal.  These dresses were mostly ceremonial dresses, but they became well known on the Plains.  These dresses were — and still are — works of art.

iroq1[1]The picture here to the left is of an Iroquois warrior, painted by George Catlin.  At the time that Mr. Catlin painted this picture, he tells the story that he found this man living in the West, instead of with his people in the East.  But by this time, the Iroquois had been displaced from their homes, and so perhaps it is to be expected that he found this man living with a Western tribe.  Now interestingly, the Iroquois, who had a lot of contact with the Europeans, soon began to make their clothing from cloth, rather than from buckskin, thus we see this man wearing cloth leggings and cloth breechcloth, as well as a cloth blanket over his shoulder.

moc01[1]Moccains were made from material that was tough, yet pliable and able to withstand the rigors of continual wear.  Many or perhaps most were smoked to make them sturdy.  The two-piece style of moccasins was used by many of the Plains tribes, yet each tribe had their own distinctive trait.  So much was this the case, that warriors could tell from the mere footprint and outline of the moccasin, what tribe had made it.  In cold weather, the fur side of the hide was turned inward to help to warm the foot.   And warriors on the trail often carried extra moccasins or hides that could be made into moccasins, since they often wore through their shoes.  As an aside, it was a custom to discard one’s moccasins at the side of the campfire so that others could tell what tribe it was who had camped there.

DSCN0091A[1]To the left here is a Brule Lakotah war shirt.  It was made of buckskin and its owner was clearly well-to-do to own such a manificent shirt.  A word about leggings.  Imagine wearing a soft, pliable leather day in and day out.  These clothes were made to fit a particular person, and as such they fit his figure very well.  It is well noted that these leggings worn by the men were often skin tight, yet still flexible and pliable.  It must have been an act of love that created these clothes that I look upon as works of art.

I’ll leave you with these beautiful images from artist Geroge Catlin:


I hope you’ve enjoyed this post today.  I wish I could add more to the knowledge of how to do it and sew it.  But for that I’ll refer you to the book once again by Adolf Hungry Wolf, Traditional Dress.

blackeagleAnd don’t forget, if you haven’t already picked up a copy of my latest effort, Black Eagle, please do so today.

Website | + posts

KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
Please refer to https://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules for all contest rules.

37 thoughts on “What to wear — Traditional Style”

  1. I don’t sew well either. I would have been lost back in the old days when you had to make your own clothes. The Indian outfits are so elaborate and beautiful. My grandmother was Cherokee but she died before I was born so I didn’t learn any of the culture from her. I have a few books, but it would have been nice to hear firsthand. When my daughter was in Girl Scouts we took a big group of girls to a local pow-wow and had a traditional Indian meal before everthing started. It was fascinating. This was a group of girls from all over the United States and it was wonderful to see the looks on the girls’ faces when they witnessed their first pow-wow. I live in an area where we have them frequently so it wasn’t a new experience for those of us here. The costumes were wonderful, I’m just glad I never had to make one.

  2. Hi Karen, Wonderful post! Such beautiful clothing for beautiful women. You know that show on the Discovery Channel, “What Not To Wear”? No one needed it back then. These dresses are works of art.

  3. I am not a sewer either, but for my Mom, because she really wanted me to learn, I have tried to learn to quilt. I need 65 sqaures and only have 13 done. All that precise cutting, yuck.
    I enjoyed your post, Kay. I teach Iowa History and for my Native Iowans unit I have a young man from the Meskwaki Nation come show us his tribal dance outfit. He also brings along his bow and arrow he had to make himself. Very interesting.

  4. Those costumes are so beautiful, Karen. It’s amazing what they could do with the tools they had. I used to sew when my children were growing up. My grandmother, mother and sister were/are wonderful seamstresses, but now I don’t even own a machine. I do little alterations like hemming by hand. That’s about it.

  5. Hi Karen,
    I loved reading your post. The clothing is so beautiful and such a pleasure to look at. I live in Cheyenne, Wyoming and we have beautiful Indian clothing displayed in wall cases in a couple of our local Hotels. I am always amazed by the beading and how elaborate some of the clothing is.
    My imagination always takes off. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I enjoyed your post, but I am a very experenced semtress. Have about given it up since I retired, but I have sewed all my life and even tailored for a group of history re-inactors.


  7. Hi Karen – what an interesting post, and such lovely pictures! I used to sew, made most of my own clothes. But then the kids came along and I could no longer lay the pieces out on the floor (which was how I worked) for fear they would hurt themselves with the pins. I put it away ‘temporarily’ and never got back to it – and that was 27 years ago!

  8. I am amazed at the clothing sewn and prepared with
    only the barest of essentials. Some of the designs
    are really outstanding!

    Pat Cochran

  9. Karen, I loved this blog. I think that the Native American clothing is fasinating. So much tradition and beauty is included. I have sewen from authentic patterns for the Black powder Mountain man group in this area and that too is interesting.
    My husband planned many years ago to attempt to tan a deer hide of a deer he had harvested with a bow. The book that he has on the subject says that every animanl has enough brains to tan it’s hide so in my freezer is the brain of that animal. Needless to say he never got around to using them. so I never got to see how it was done but I did read the book. It is very labor intensive and a long interesting process.

  10. Hi Linda!

    It’s so nice to see you here. Thanks for stoping by. Like you, I don’t sew well. It frustrates me, to tell you the truth. However, under the guideance of Patricia, who is Blackfeet, I could do it and even understood it without the frustration. Shows you just how much one person can influence another, huh?

  11. Hi Victoria!

    Yeah, the title of this post was inspired by that book — show. I don’t watch and don’t have television — but I’ve read the book. 🙂

  12. Hi Deb H.!

    I love that you teach this class and that he came in to show you here regalia and how he makes his bows and such. Of course, I have books on this, but there is nothing like the experience of seeing it first hand. Thanks for the post. 🙂

  13. Hi Elizabeth!

    Believe it or not, I even have a sewing machine that I’ve never used. It was my brother-in-law’s machine. When Patricia was here, she often used it and she sewed her own clothing and made all her own regalia and even made much of mine. And she was so certain about what she did — she would have things made within minutes. Like I said, when she was here, I could magically sew. 🙂

  14. Hi Sharon! Me, too. Thanks for your post, by the way.

    Now, I must say that I believe Wyoming and Montana (and maybe also Vermont) to be the most beautiful states of all. I was so taken with Wyoming and Montana. I remember once going up on a mountain to watch the sunrise and it was so beautiful, I had tears streaming down my face.


  15. Oh, Edna, I so admire this. My mother-in-law is also quite a seamstress, and I really look at it as a talent, skill and art all in one. Talent cause I don’t seem to have it, and art because these things are beautiful. 🙂 Thanks for your post.

  16. Hi Winnie!

    But what a good mother you were to give it up instead of trying to do it and getting frustrated and telling the kids “not to touch,” and that sort of thing. And the clothing is beautiful. To see it in person is awe-inspiring, I think. 🙂

  17. Hi Connie!

    Interestingly, my friend who inspired this post, also goes to the Black Powder Shoot. I’ve never been, but it seems so very, very interesting, but then I like shooting anyway. I look on it as putting a woman on an even footing with a man who might think to assault her.

    Interesting, too, that you have a book on how to tan a hide the Native American way. I know that it’s labor intensive, but it also provided the hides to be pliant, even if wetted.

    Thanks for your post. 🙂

  18. This just in. Congress just ceded the entire state of South Dakota back to the Indians — okay it was a typo in the bill, but Obama has signed it and says he’s not taking back his signature.

    One of their first acts? They just put the cost of gas at 25 cents a gallon. Anyone for moving to South Dakota?

  19. Karen very beautiful dresses and I am sure there was a lot of time and love put into them. I can sew some and I quilt not very good at it but I can get it done. I would like to be one of those who can sit down at the beginning of the day and at evening have something out of it.
    Do you ever come to Nebraska for the Pow wows? We usually go each year and I love watching it is so beautiful I love seeing all the different costumes and the dancing just makes the rest of the world go away. I can’t wait for this years.

  20. Hi Estella!

    I know what you mean — it does look daunting — but again, my friend, Patricia does these things with an ease that astounds me. Within a matter of hours, she had an entire new outfit. The beading takes a little longer, but goodness, how good she is at it. 🙂 Perhaps with practice, the skill necessary comes at last until one can do it easily. I have a hard time getting past that frustration period.

  21. Hi Brenda!

    I love to go north to the pow-wows. I try to get up to Browning, MT at least every year, but right now it’s been two years since I’ve been there — am planning to be there this year, however. Two years is too long.

    We have pow-wows here locally and I used to attend them very often. But I haven’t gone very much lately — only because my schedule just doesn’t permit it much anymore. 🙂 I love pow-wows.

  22. Hi, Karen.
    Nice post. I sew, but not as often as I used to . It is down to costumes and regalia for the most part. Our dresses and leggings are decorated only with ribbon. My husband and son’s ribbon shirts turned out nice. Since my daughter doesn’t shawl dance any more, we haven’t done much with the dresses and shawls. I have a Cherokee dress I started years ago and still haven’t finished. I have the buckskin for my son’s leggings, but neither of us has had time to work on them. We all made chokers and she has a pair of mink that she tied in with her braids. Some of the regalia we’ve seen has quill work instead of bead work (or in addition to it) and it is lovely. My son tried tanning a deer hide when he was about 14. He was doing a fair job, but he hadn’t cleaned the hide well enough initially. It does make a difference. Not bad for a first attempt with no direction. I’ve since gotten a book on brain tanning. One if these days he will try again.
    When we attended the pow-wow at the Rosebud Reservation, there were some outstanding examples of the different styles of regalia. One young man was dressed in Ghost Dancer regalia. Very different and striking. My favorites are the traditional style buckskin for both men and women. The unsmoked white buckskin is simply exquisite .

  23. Wow, Patricia, this is a wonderful example of what can be done to make the regalia. I must admit that I, too, love the unsmoked white buckskin. Beautiful, beautiful.

    Am in awe of how much you’ve done, however, on the regalia. Absolutely wonderful. Thanks for all your thoughts, Patricia. I sure wish I were talented in this direction, but at least I can admire it. 🙂

  24. My goodness, my year has been so full of changes I haven’t been able to spend much time on other websites. I joined the Red River Romance Writers of Wichita Falls, Texas last year and kept hearing of P&P. Then, I remembered I had visited before. I found this article to be so informative for my current wip that it almost brought tears to my eyes. Must have been a God thing. I just love the site and will visit often.

    Winona Cross

  25. Hi Winona!

    Nice to see you here again. Thanks so much for coming here and appreciating what we do. That means a lot to me and to the others.

    Have a super day!

Comments are closed.