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Native American Clothing

Traditional Native American Clothing

Before the arrival of traders and settlers, Native people used materials from their natural environments to make and decorate their clothing including dyes made from minerals, clay, and plants; hides such as deer and elk for dresses and heavier buffalo hides for clothing. Decorations came from porcupine quills, animal teeth, bird and animal claws, and other natural materials. In their use of natural resources, Native Americans showed reverence, offered thanks and stewarded them with care.

Beaded Dress, ca. 1890
Whittier Family Collection
Dresses with massive beaded areas were made during the reservation period when the time for sedentary activity was more plentiful. This was a “best dress”, worn only for special occasions. Created from three skins, typically elk, the average weight of this style of dress was 13-16 pounds, caused by the thick skin and heavily beaded areas.

Patterns and symbols used on clothing have special significance and tell a story, often one that brings honor to the tribe, warrior, or family.

Left: Quilled Jacket, ca. 1880s
Santee Sioux
Kent B Wintersteen Collection
Before contact with Euro-Americans, the Lakota decorated their clothing with natural materials. Flattened and dyed porcupine quills and natural dyes were used to create designs.

Right: Beaded Suit, ca. 1880s
Kent B Wintersteen Collection
By the early 1800s, glass seed beads were introduced to the Lakota. The women quickly integrated this new material into clothing and personal possessions, creating complex designs. With the traders also came the trade of cloth, blankets, and German silver. Mothers and grandmothers made distinctly decorated moccasins, shirts, vests, dresses, and pants for children to wear for ceremonies and other special occasions.

Native American moccasins

Native American moccasins reflect tribal differences, including the cut of the moccasins, and the amount of quillwork, beadwork, and painted designs. Elements including lining and soles varied, and Native Americans could tell tribal affiliation from moccasin design. As with other clothing, the arrival of traders with glass beads meant a shift from quillwork to beadwork.

Native American Dolls

Native American dolls are useful for learning about cultural differences between the tribes and various social and ceremonial functions. Earlier dollmaking used animal hides and plant fibers. With colonization, the materials used changed to include more fabric and glass beads. Plains Indian dolls often have intricate beadwork.

Native American Clothing Today

Traditional Native American clothing today is generally reserved for ceremonies and powwows. Often referred to as regalia, these contemporary pieces still connect the wearer with tribe, family, and ancestors. Items are adorned with beads, designs, and symbols that tell a story or honor family members.

More contemporary Native American fashion designers bring forward traditional design and embellishment in new ways, still carrying forward the unique beauty and symbolism found in Native art.