American Indian Dress

horseheader11.jpgGood morning or afternoon or evening!

1985.66.125_1c[1]As I sit here looking through my many books, I am struck by the beauty of the American Indian style of dress.  But before I begin, I’d like to let you know that once again, I’ll be giving out a free book to some lucky blogger.  Please note that this offer is for those in the greater 50 United States or Canada and void where prohibited.

Okay, all that aside, I thought I’d start with Plains Indian dress, since this is probably what we are the most familiar with.  I might also call this post, a tour of George Catlin and Karl Bodner’s paintings.  The time period in which they worked was in the 1830’s — mostly around 1834.  Off to the left is a painting by George Catlin.  Note that the dress does not hide the natural curve of the animal that it is made from.  Notice too the intricate painting and or beading/quill work on the dress.  All tribes were different, which made it a little easier for the men of the tribe to read trails (they could tell by the mere indentation of a moccasin what tribe had passed that way.)

karl-bodmer-dacota-woman-and-assiniboin-girl[1]Note in all of these painting the robe or shawl that encircles the woman.  Both men and women favored the robe.  Most were again intricately beaded or painted or decorated.  To this day, the shawl still survives in women’s dress.  When one goes to a pow-wow and wishes to dance, one wraps a shawl around oneself before entering into the circle.

Many Plains women favored the two-skin dress.  Originally, the skirt with a poncho made of skin was the favored dress.  But by the time the white man arrived in Indian country, the two-skin dress was popular.  Later, still, a three skin dress became popular.  Depending on the tribe, the yoke of the dress was either decorated with beads, quills or with many rows of elk’s teeth.  The bottom of the ankle-length dress could be left in the same shape as the animal, although sometimes the hem was fringed.

karl-bodmer-mehkskeme-sukahs_-plate-45_-travels-in-the-interior-of-north-america_-engraved--allais_-1844[1]Women also traditionally wore knee-length leggings that were laced at the front or the inside.  These were often painted and designed with quill work.   Off to the side here are two Blackfeet men.  Note the fringe on their sleeves.  Not also the robe (or cape) around their shoulders.  This man on the left has his face painted black and there are many, many feathers attached to his head.  This man was a chief and the “buttons” on his shirt are brass and the designs are made of blue glass.   This painting is one of Karl Bodner’s.

karl-bodmer-a-blackfoot-indian-on-horseback_-plate-19-from-volume-1-of-travels-in-the-interior-of-north-america[1]The picture off to the right is of a Blackfeet Indian on horseback.  Notice the fringed shirt and fringed saddle, as well as the feather tied to the horse’s mane.  Notice, too, the painted designs on his leggings.  The Blackfeet man’s basic dress was breechcloth, shirt, leggings, moccasins and the ever present robe.  This man’s shirt comes almost to his knees as he is sitting.  And note that the hemline keeps the same shape of the animal that the clothes were made from.  This is a beautiful drawing and shows the richness of a people who, while owning no money, had all the comforts and necessities of life.

karl-bodmer-sih-chida-and-mahchsi-karehde_-mandan-indians[1]karl-bodmer-mahchsi-karehde_-mandan-man[1]I’m showing these two pictures together because both come from the Mandan tribe.  The Mandans were a tribe that traded goods from both southern and northern and western tribes.  They had permanent villages.  The painting on the left is of a man named Flying War Eagle, who was one of their best warriors.  Note the hair-bows on each side of his face, the feathers, the necklace, the earrings.  I would like to point out that those earrings are not feminine at all.  Now around his neck are bear claws.  This means that he had killed a bear.  Note also the wolf tails that are attached to his moccasins.  On the right is the same warrior, but with another man, the one in the foreground, who was an Indian artist.  Note the robe thrown around their shoulders.  They lived in a cold climate.

karl-bodmer-a-minatarre[1]This next picture is of a Hidasta Indian — the Hidasta were another tribe that had settled in permanent villages, right along the Missouri River.  This man’s name was Black Raven.  Note the elaborate peace pipe, the bear necklace, the hair-bow and single feather.  Note also the beautiful designs on his leggings and moccasins.  This is another Karl Bodner painting.  I have these picture in a larger book at home — that’s how I’m able to see much of the detail.

85URD00Z[1]And here off to the left is my favorite.  The man is Assiniboine, which is a tribe that is related to the Lakota or Sioux.  Note the two hair beads that hang from locks in front.  Note also the hair that is made to come down directly on his nose.  Note that his costume has again kept the shape of the animal at the hemline.  This man’s robe looks very much like a cape.  On his shield is attached his medicine bundle.  Many a warrior would not go to war without that medicine bundle.  I have studied this painting long and often and in great detail.   This is a handsome man in anybody’s culture.  Tall, firm of limb, proud bearing, yet gentle spirit.  Ah…

red_road_pic[1]The painting below is one that I found on the Republic of Lakotah website.  I was particularly taken with it.  While it doesn’t show the manner of dress necessarily, it does show the strength of spirit of not only the man, but the eagle.  It’s a magnificent painting.

Where this painting takes place I don’t know.  Perhaps in the woodlands of the Dakota people — it’s only that I know of very few places in the West where there are strands of dicidious trees as is shown here.  The title of this picture is “Red Road.”51obnqdgasl_sl500_aa240_1Seneca+Surrender[1]

Well, I didn’t get very far today in discussing dress.  Mostly I’m afraid I got engrossed in the handsome pictures of these very beautiful people.  Now off to the left here is the cover of BLACK EAGLE, my latest novel that is still in the bookstores.  Off to the right is the cover of SENECA SURRENDER, which is due to be released next month — April.  If you’d like to read an excerpt of SENECA SURRENDER, or of BLACK EAGLE, please visit my website at either or

Well, that’s all for today’s post.  Hope you’ve enjoyed these pictures as much as I do.  So please come on in and leave a comment.  What do you think?  Are these clothes as pretty as the English clothes of the same period?  Remember that at this time period, one’s “betters” dressed differently than the common folk (which was not true in Native America).  Come on in and leave a message.

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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.
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25 thoughts on “American Indian Dress”

  1. I believe that the Native American clothes are more beautiful! The intricate bead work… WOW!… those women were so talented! The English counterparts do not compare on any level. Do you have any pictures from the tribes in Wisconsin: Menonminee, Oneida, Winnebago, Chippewa, Fox, Kickapoo

    The forest picture looks a lot like Southern Wisconsin. However, Northern Wisconsin has more birch trees.

  2. Hi, Karen! Thank you for another wonderful post. Each time I read your thoughtful, poetic discources, I am instantly transported right into that world! There is no denying the beauty and history of Native American clothing with it’s beading, feathers, fringe and painted images. “Assiniboine” is indeed resplendent, and worthy of a book cover! As someone who sews and loves fabrics and costumes, I can also say there is also much to admire in “English” clothes. Out of respect for the hearts and hands that created the fashions and imagery for both cultures, I will not choose between the two. I will say that I admire the creativity, skill, and lasting impressions left by the talented artisans.

  3. Hi Laurie!

    There are paintings of these tribes amongst George Catlin’s work — perhaps in another post, I might try to find some of those images, too. It could look like Wisconsin — also perhaps mid-western Illinois.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Hi Virginia!

    Like you, I like both the American Indian style and the European style. Both had their beauty and indeed, I think they were merely different.

    This is one huge difference, though. In Native America, there was no distinction between classes — there really weren’t classes. There were some chiefs whose duty is was to ensure all were happy and well.

    Whereas in European there were the “upper crust” as they liked to call themselves, and the lower classes, and each had its own mark of dress. It’s always been something that I’ve looked at when I study the English culture — how those of wealth strove to ensure that they were “better” in styles of dress, language, etc. Whether they were “better” or not remains a question in my mind. Anyone who places themselves above another and seeks to use that person for their own gain is not, in my opinion, “better.”

    Instead, I think phrases like tyrant, ignorant, even inhumane come to mind.

    Had everyone been able to dress the similarily, with frills and beauty, then that would have been a culture worth pride in my humble estimation.

  5. Oh, I vote for the how the native americans dressed. It just seems more close to nature and I have to think their everyday dress was more practical and lovely at the same time. Of course it seems they had their “dress” clothes too. For me a lot of the European styles were very impractical and over the top lol. I have to say your covers are just gorgeous.

  6. Hi Kay, beautiful pictures and as always, fantastic information. I agree with Jeanne. The natives’ affiliation with nature always touches my heart because, all too often, our culture does not treat nature as respectfully. oxoxoxoxoxxo

  7. Beautiful clothes, Kay. I love it that what these people wore had so much meaning woven into it. Imagine how much work it took to make these garments by hand. There had to be devotion in every stitch.
    We owe much to Catlin and Bogner for preserving the detail of these costumes in their paintings.
    Thanks for a fascinating blog.

  8. Hi Jeanne!

    I think the American Indian style of dress in the past was more practical — but then the choice of material was different. I do like them both — again the thing that I see that’s so different, is the difference between those of “class” dressed and those of the general public.

    I like the fact that here in America — as part of our heritage — we adopted the American Indian style of everyone being able to wear beautiful clothes — even cheaply. 🙂

  9. Thanks Elizabeth!

    I feel the same way — that we owe them so much for documenting a bit of history. I also love how strong and proud and yet gentle these people looked.

    They were a healthy bunch of people at this time in history. 🙂

  10. great post kay!
    i read the excerpts for you two books…they both sound wonderful!
    i especially was drawn to “seneca surrender”. i could smell autumn in the air!
    your stories always contain a magical element…i love how the spiritual side comes though in your writing…if we could only all be so in touch with our intuition like the Indians your write of

  11. I love the beautiful intricate bead work on the clothes; it is stunning. Thanks for the look into the dress of the American Indian.
    I also enjoy looking at the European dressings-they were elegant.

  12. Good day Kay,

    I love the clothing of the Native Americans. I have been real busy so sorry for the late post. I am moving to AZ so you know how it is when you are moving.

    The elaborate bead work is also beautiful. If I could go back in time I would definitely would want to wear these clothing and proudly too

    Hope to win the copy of your book>

    Walk in harmony, my dear friend


  13. I have always been fascinated by the Indian style of dress and was very pleased with all that you told about the different style. It was very interesting. I too hope to win a copy of your books as I have been an avid fan for many years…

  14. Oh, Tabitha, you have made my day special with your gracious words. I was wondering about that excerpt because there was no conversation in it. But it was one of my most favorite scenes in the book. There are others, too. But later.

    Thanks again.

  15. Hi Robyn!

    You know, I do, too. I enjoy their beauty of dress, also. And luckily, because my heroines are usually from some European country, I get a chance to talk about their clothes, also.

    Thanks for the post, Robyn.

  16. Hi Melinda!

    Moving. Oh, my goodness. How I dislike the sound of that. Interestingly enough, however, I’ve done alot of it. Sigh…

    Thanks for coming aboard today, despite your busy-ness. 🙂

  17. Hi Sharon!

    Thanks so much for your post, also. I love the style of dress of both places, but like I said what I like most about Native America is that the land was free, the clothes were free, the food was free. In other words, the necessities of life were free, leaving one to pursue other interests. I don’t believe one society was necessarily better than the other, just different. I will admit, however, that there was a spirit of freedom in this land that was absent on the European continent at this time in history. Interesting.

  18. I love the Native American dress. They were so at one with nature and liked the ‘bling’ of the era. When I think of all the hours, days, months that it must have taken them to put together these beautiful clothes, it amazes me.
    I have seen dress trimmed in porcupine quills. This has always facinated me as I have a small plastic bag filled with quills and would love to do something with them but have never found the time to research and figure out what I want to do. They are sharp!!

  19. Have always liked the buckskin dresses native women wore and sometimes wear today. The leather is supple and comfortable. The embellishments of elks teeth, quill work, beading, and dyeing produced lovely pieces of work anyone would be honored to own. Have seen some outstanding examples in various museums. The Colter Bay Visitor’s Center in the Grand Teton National Park has an excellent collection of native pieces and the best collection of footwear I’ve ever seen.
    In a way, the bead work and clothing styles of America’s native peoples were a bit like the heraldry system in Europe. Not as specific, as to family or name, but you could tell the tribe and sometimes clan.
    Always enjoy your posts.

  20. Hi Connie!

    Are they really that sharp. I have some earrings that are quilled, but I didn’t know the amount of work that went into them. Amazing.

  21. Hi Patricia!

    You are so right about that. I’d never realized that before. But it is very much like the heraldry system in Europe. Fascinating.

    Thanks Patricia! 🙂

  22. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when your hours aren’t spent just staring at the tube (tv). I do all my beading either in the car (keeps me from having to pay attention to my husband’s driving, thank God)or while I am watching my husband watch tv or sitting thru meetings or waiting in lines or sitting at pow wows. I figure a project will be done when it is done and if it takes weeks or months, that is what it takes. But yes, my gosh, it takes hand numbing work and the years to perfect the skill yet I encourage anyone to do it who has any interest. Yes, it takes us a long time to make this stuff. Then the kids want to play football in it.
    Yes quills are sharp – but you snip the barb off before you use it. it’s also hollow so you can also use it like a long bead if you want.
    Have fun!

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