Fashion — Native American Style


I hope you will bear with me today as I post an older blog, one which I particularly like, and I’ve changed it a little to bring it up to date, but I really needed to fall back on something today because I got hit with some very bad news today.  A very good friend of mine, Jim Bird, was killed early this morning in an accident on the road.  He was a good friend and we had many adventures with each other because we both loved the Blackfeet people and so we often found ourselves trying to help them…together.  So please forgive me for the repeat — but it’s a much older blog and one I really love for its beauty.  So please do enjoy!

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 isshown here.  The title of this picture is “Red Road.”

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 PROUD WOLF’S WOMAN, for the first time in ebook form, which is due to released in February 2012.  If you’d like to read an excerpt of this book, please visit my site at

Off to the right here is the new cover for the new ebook of LAKOTA PRINCESS, which is due out in January 2012.



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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22 thoughts on “Fashion — Native American Style”

  1. I’m amazed at the talent they had to design and make their clothing ( mostly from hides) and weaving blankets. It’s especially amazing to me that they could survive in bitter cold climates.

    I think the intricate bead work made the Native Americans clothes more beautiful than the Englishman’s clothes.

  2. So sorry about your friend, Karen. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers.

    And thank you for reposting this blog. The details used by the Native American’s on their clothing has always astounded me. Also that everything has meaning and sentiment, I think that’s what makes their clothing more beautiful.


  3. How sad to lose your friend, Karen. My heart goes out to you. And it’s a treat to read this wonderful blog again. Native American culture is so rich, and most people know so little about it. Thank you for teaching us.

  4. So sorry for your loss, Karen. Friends are a precious gift, and Jim will be missed. It’s wonderful blog. I didn’t see it the first time, and I’m sure it’s new to a lot of readers. Thank you for all you insight and wisdom!

  5. Hi Elizabeth!

    Thank you for your kind words. He was a very good man, full of compassion and humor and he did many good things for many people. He truly will be missed. Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Kay, I’m so sorry about your friend. That’s really hard to deal with. I think the Native Americans’ dress, especially, the women’s was/is simply breathtaking. I love how they decorate their skins with beads and other adornment. Very pretty. And I’m sure those skin dresses are really comfortable to wear. Thank you for showing the Native American fashion. I don’t remember you ever having blogged on it before so was thrilled to have you do it again.

  7. Hi Linda!

    Thank you for your thoughts on Jim. He was a very good friend and he and his wife and were good friends of myself and my husband — we kept in touch often, even though he lived in a different city than I do.

    I love the American Indian fashion. The beadwork are works of art — I know many call it craft — but to me, it is as beautiful as a painting.

  8. I am sorry for the loss of your friend Karen, you are in my prayers today.
    I am humbled by the details that the Native Americans used in their clothing. We take for granted the ease in which we can cloth ourselves today, but it took a lot of time and effort to clothe oneself back then…and they did a beautiful job!
    I would love to find a shawl that has the beautiful workings on it like the ones in your pictures. They are amazing. 🙂

  9. I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend!
    The time and energy that went into making their clothes… how unique each one would be… they all are works of art.

  10. Kay, sending prayers and hugs over your tragic loss. May happy memories give you comfort. As for the post, I love your blogs no matter what. The information is terrific as are the pictures. I so love the pic with the eagle. Love to you, my friend.

  11. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s never easy to lose close ones.

    I enjoyed the descriptions and the pics (especially your books). I think that this clothing was a lot more practical and used materials that were available. I’ve read many times how they never wasted anything and took only what they could use. Something we as a people very much need to learn.

  12. Hi Tammy!

    Thank you so much for your words about Jim. It is a sad day. I love the work of the clothing. To me, it is truly a work of art. Thanks Tammy!

  13. Hi Catslady!

    So true about their clothes and how they used everything — didn’t waste anything — I think it was done in tribute to the spirit of the animal that gave its life to ensure the lives of others.

    And thanks for your words of comfort. It means so much.

  14. As a Pacific Northwest girl, my family has rootsint he coastal tribes along with the Yakama, and Salish. I’ve love the clothes of all Native American cultures, and the artwork that is worked into the clothing is simply stunning.
    Wonderful post!

  15. I am so sorry to hear about your friend. A good friend like that will still be there in spirit when you think of him and when you work to help the Blackfeet. Think of the good times and cherish them.

    We go to pow wows for many reasons, but one of the major ones is to look at all the wonderful variations in the regalia. The colors, beadwork, quill work, ribbon work, designs on shawls, pelts, feathers, mirrors, jingles, teeth, shells, and more are fascinating.

    We stopped at a museum on the shore of Jackson Lake in the Tetons. It hold an incredible collection of indian artifacts collected by David T. Vernon. I think it has the largest collection of moccasins and leggings anywhere. It does an excellent job of showing the difference in designs and style among the tribes.

    Last time we attended a native american gathering, I was talking with several of the dancers about their bead work. I asked if anyone had quill work and none did. They said it was becoming a lost art. Fewer and fewer people are doing it any more. Too bad. I have a jar of quills I hoped to try working with one day but haven’t had a chance. I will be a shame if the craft isn’t preserved.

    As always, thank you for an interesting and enjoyable post.

  16. Hi Patricia!

    Thanks for all your insightful info — the quill work is becoming more and more a lost art, I think. And some of it is incredibly beautiful.

    And thanks for your kind, kind thoughts. Means so much!

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