Native American clothing history

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Pueblo cotton cloth (before 1500 AD)

Pueblo cotton cloth (before 1500 AD)

Most people in North America made their clothing from agave plant fiber – some of it grew wild, and some of it they farmed. Richer people wore cotton clothing. Cotton came originally from the Aztec people south of them. Pueblo people spun and wove this cotton into clothes. They knitted it into socks. Men wore kilts (skirts) and women wore dresses, and they both wore ankle-high leather moccasins. These cotton clothes were appropriate for the hot weather of the south-west (modern Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico).

tall sock with wide stripes of white and red

Pueblo cotton sock, made with nalbinding (Gourd Cave, ca. 1100-1300 AD) Now in Arizona State Museum

Further east, among the Mississippians and the Cherokee, there were fewer people, and they didn’t grow cotton or agave. They made their clothes out of the inner bark of trees; like people in Africa, they peeled off the bark, beat it until it was flexible, and then spun and wove it into cloth like linen. It was hard to tell this bark cloth apart from cotton. For fancy occasions, the Pueblo and the Mississipians and Cherokee all wore feather cloaks, which looked very impressive.

Cherokee feather cloak (Now in Museum of the Cherokee Indian)

Cherokee feather cloak (Now in Museum of the Cherokee Indian)

The further north you went, the fewer people there were, and fewer of them had clothes made of cotton or agave or bark cloth. Instead, they wore mostly deerskin or the skins of small animals like rabbits and squirrels sewn together. It was colder up north, and people needed warmer outfits. Also, agave and cotton wouldn’t grow up north. Women wore dresses or skirts, sometimes with leggings under them.

Some women spun and wove nettle fibers to make softer under-shirts to wear under their dresses. In cold weather they wrapped another deerskin around themselves as a coat. If it was hotter, many women went topless and just wore leggings and skirts.

A traditional Blackfoot men's shirt

A traditional Blackfoot men’s shirt (only with later European trade beads added)

Most men wore leggings and breechclouts (like shorts) made out of deerskin. When it was cold they wore deerskin robes. It was hard to get enough deerskins for everyone, so – just as in Europe or Asia at this time – most people only had one outfit, and some poor people and children didn’t own any clothes. Most people tried to make their clothes last as long as possible by not wearing them whenever it was warm enough, or if they were working hard. Sometimes women wore cheaper grass or moss skirts to save their deerskin clothes.

earl necklace from Craig Mound, Spiro (modern Oklahoma), ca. 1300 AD

Pearl necklace from Craig Mound, Spiro (modern Oklahoma), ca. 1300 AD

People also showed what group they belonged to with their hairstyles. For instance, men who lived on the East Coast – like the Algonquins, the Cherokee, and the Iroquois – shaved most of the hair off their head and left only a little hair at the top of their head (today we call this a Mohawk or a Mohican after two of the groups that did this). But men who lived in the Plains – like the Sioux or the Blackfeet – kept their hair in two long braids along the side of their head. Pueblo men cut their hair off at neck-length.

Most women wore their hair long, often in one long braid down their back, but Chinook women, for instance, cut theirs to shoulder length.

People also used jewelry as part of their clothing. They often traded long distances to get special pearls or shells or copper to make into beads.

Learn by doing: go to a Native American event or museum and check out the deerskin clothes
More about Native cotton clothing

Bibliography and further reading about Native American clothing:

More about Native cotton
North American clothing after 1500
Native Americans home

By | 2017-08-08T00:31:58+00:00 August 8th, 2017|Clothing, Native American|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Native American clothing history. Study Guides, August 8, 2017. Web. December 14, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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