Native American Clothing

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Before North America was bound together into countries like the United States and Canada, it was home to many one-of-a-kind Native American countries. Alongside their very own dialects, traditions, and customs, every realm had its own unmistakable interpretation of design and dress.

Men and Women’s Clothing

In Native America, garments were defined largely by the climate. In hotter months, most Native American men wore little amounts of clothing, such as some basic short-like covers called a breechclout and leather shoes called moccasins. Women wore a little more, regularly secured by a full-length dress, yet in addition as often as possible wearing just a skirt. In winter months, people covered themselves in long-sleeve shirts, covers, and robes. It’s essential to recall that, given the great extent roaming nature of most Native American societies, most people only owned a single set of clothing.

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One of the clearest ways to distinguish between kinds of Native American clothing was by the materials. One you should be familiar with is cotton. Cotton was first domesticated in central Mexico but was being harvested in the US Southwest by about 1200 CE. As a lightweight, breathable material, cotton was highly prized by the cultures of the hot Southwest and used for socks, skirts, and leggings.

In areas that didn’t have the climate for cotton, or which couldn’t trade with the settlements of the Southwest, other plant fibers were available. Nations of the Southeast used mulberry bark, those of the Northwest used redwood, and some in the Plains used sagebrush. The bark was peeled and pounded into a soft fiber that was woven into leggings, dresses, jackets, and shirts. Some cultures, notably those of the Southwest, also spun plant fibers into sandals.

The other material among Native American nations was animal skin. Particularly in the Great Plains, where plant fibers were scarce, animal skins were worked into a soft, suede-like material that was durable, warm, and long-lasting. The fabric was then sewn together using animal sinew and porcupine quill needles. Many Native American nations also learned to treat the leather to make it waterproof, which was essential for staying warm and dry. That same idea is also why many animal-skin clothing articles are covered infringe; the design helps pull water off the fabric so it dries quicker.

Types of Clothing and When It was Worn

Some clothing had great significance to the Native Americans. Ceremonial shirts were worn only during religious rituals, for dancing, or warfare. These shirts were made and decorated in ways that carried deep spiritual significance. Many Native American cultures also utilized headdresses as an important form of ceremonial clothing. Being so important, these headdresses often used one of the most valuable materials coveted across North America: feathers. Feathers were highly prized items, in some places only worn by rulers.

After Europeans arrived in North America, Native American societies began incorporating new materials and techniques into their designs. This included things like glass beads, silk or satin ribbons, and even metal pots, which were worn as jewelry and status symbols in some eastern cultures. Of course, the introduction of things like metal sewing needles was also adopted by many societies as an extremely useful tool.

Clothing and fashion have been important parts of Native American societies for thousands of years, and continue to be today. Traditionally, most Native American cultures relied on some combination of leggings, breechclout, and shirt or jacket for men, and leggings and a full-length dress for women. Styles varied by climate and available materials, which could include cotton, tree bark fibers, animal skins, and even feathers. These styles adapted to the arrival of European materials, tools, and techniques, and later influenced several mainstream fashions across the USA as well. Today, many notable Native American designers are reclaiming their culture’s traditions through new fashions as well. There’s a long history of fashion in North America, and it’s only continuing to grow. 


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