Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Clothing of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The tribes of northern America belong in general to the wholly clothed peoples, the exceptions being those inhabiting the warmer regions of S. United States and the Pacific coast, who were semi-clothed. Tanned skin of the deer family was generally the material for clothing throughout the greater portion of the country, and dressed fur skins and pelts of birds sewed together were invariably used by the [Inuit]. The hide of the buffalo was worn for robes by tribes of the plains, and even for dresses and leggings by older people, but the leather was too harsh for clothing generally, while elk or moose skin, although soft, was too thick. Fabrics of bark, hair, fur, mountain-sheep wool, and feathers were made in the N. Pacific, Pueblo , and southern regions, and cotton has been woven by the Hopi from ancient times. Climate, environment, elevation, and oceanic currents determined the materials used for clothing as well as the demand for clothing. Sinew from the tendons of the larger animals was the usual sewing material, but fibres of plants, especially the agave, were also employed. Bone awls were used in sewing; bone needles were rarely employed and were too large for fine work: The older needlework is of exceptionally good character and shows great skill with the awl. Unlike many other arts, sewing was practised by both sexes, and each sex usually made its own clothing. The typical and more familiar costume of the Indian man was of tanned buckskin and consisted of a shirt, a breechcloth, leggings tied to a belt or waist-strap, and low moccasins. The shirt, which hung free over the hips, was provided with sleeves and was designed to be drawn over the head. The woman's costume differed from that of the man in the length of the shirt, which had short sleeves hanging loosely over the upper arm, and in the absence of the breechcloth. Women also wore the belt to confine the garment at the waist. Robes of skin, woven fabrics, or of feathers were also worn, but blankets were substituted for these later. The costume presented tribal differences in cut, colour, and ornamentation, The free edges were generally fringed, and quill embroidery and beadwork, painting, scalp-locks, tails of animals, feathers, claws, hoofs, shells, etc., were applied as ornaments or charms. The typical dress of the Pueblo Indians is generally similar to that of the Plains tribes, except that it is made largely of woven fabrics.


The Alaskan Eskimo costume also is quite similar, but the woman's coat is provided with a hood, and legging and moccasin are made into one garment. while the men wear breeches and boots. Besides the heavy fur outer clothing, under-coat, under-trousers, and stockings (the latter in S. Alaska of twined grass), are found necessary by the [Inuit] as a protection from the cold. They also make waterproof coats of the intestines of seal and walrus, which are worn on hunting trips in the kaiak. In S. Alaska a long outer dress without hood, made of squirrel pelts, is worn, a costume indicating Russian influence. In general the [Inuit] costume was more complete than that of any tribes within the United States . The British Columbia tribes made twined robes of frayed cedar bark and sagebrush bark, and bordered them with otter fur. The Chilkat of S. E. Alaska still weave remarkable ceremonial blankets of mountain-goat wool over a warp of twisted wool and bark.


Among the Pacific Coast tribes, and those along the Mexican border, the Gulf, and the Atlantic coast, the customary garment of women was a fringe-like skirt of bark, cord, strung seeds, or peltry, worn around the loins. In certain seasons or during special occupations only the loin band was worn. For occasional use in cooler weather a skin robe or cape was thrown about the shoulders, or, under exceptional conditions, a large robe woven of strips of rabbit skin. Ceremonial costume was much more elaborate than that for ordinary wear. Moccasins and leggings were worn throughout much of this area, but in the warmer parts and in California their use was unusual. Some tribes near the Mexican boundary wear sandals, and sandal-wearing tribes once ranged widely in the S. W. Those have also been found in Kentucky caverns. Hats, usually of basketry, were worn by many Pacific Coast tribes. Mittens were used by the [Inuit] and other tribes of the far N. Belts of various materials and ornamentation not only confined the clothing but supported pouches, trinket bags, paint bags, etc. Larger pouches and pipe bags of fur or deerskin, beaded or ornamented with quillwork, and of plain skin, netting, or woven stuff, were slung from the shoulder. Necklaces, earrings, charms, and bracelets in infinite variety formed a part of the clothing, and the wrist-guard to protect the arm from the recoil of the bow-string was general.


Shortly after the advent of whites, Indian costume was profoundly modified over a vast area of America by the copying of European dress and the use of traders' stuffs. Knowledge of pre-historic and early historic primitive textile fabrics has been derived from impressions of fabrics on pottery and from fabrics themselves that have been preserved by charring in fire, contact with copper, or protection from the elements in caves.


A synopsis of the costumes worn by tribes living in the 11 geographical regions of northern America follows. The list is necessarily incomplete, for on account of the abandonment of tribal costumes the data are chiefly historical.


(1) [Inuit] (Northern). Men: Shirt-coat with hood, trousers, half or full boots, stockings, mittens, Women: Shirt-coat with large hood, trousers or legging-moccasins, belt and mittens, needle-case, workbag, etc. ( Southern .) Men: Robe, gown, trousers, boots, hood on gown or cap.


(2) ATHAPASKAN (Mackenzie and Yukon ). Men: Shirt-coat, legging-moccasins, breechcloth, hat and hood. Women: Long shirt-coat, legging-moccasins, belt.


(3) ALGONQUAIN-IROQUOIS (Northern). Men: Robe, shirt-coat, long coat, trousers, leggings, moccasins, breechcloth, turban.


( Western ) Men: Robe, long dress-shirt, long leggings, moccasins, bandoleer bag. Women: Long dress-shirt, short leggings, moccasins, belt. ( Arctic .) Men: Long coat, open in front, short breeches, leggings, moccasins, gloves or mittens, cap or head-dress. Women: Robe, shirt-dress, leggings, moccasins, belt, cap, and sometimes a shoulder mantle.



(5) PLAINS. Men: Buffalo robe, shirt to knees or longer, breechcloth, thigh-leggings, moccasins, head-dress, Women: Long shirtdress with short ample cape sleeves, belt, leggings to the knees, moccasins.


(6) NORTH Pacific (Chilkat ). Men: Blanket or bark mat robe, shirt-coat (rare), legging-moccasins, basket hat. Women: Tanned skin shoulder-robe, shirt-dress with sleeves, fringed apron, leggings (?), moccasins, breechcloth(?).


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 105-106.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College