Indian clothing

eingegangen am: Sonntag, 24. Apr. 2000
Von: Anja Scholz

It is not the right place here for an extensive essay on Indian clothing. Since we are only concerned with North American Indians (especially Sioux), I am going to talk only about North American clothing habits and not about clothing customs in Middle or South America.


During the summer in the warmer parts of North America the people used to practice a certain kind of nude-culture. The men usually walked topless and - in some regions - the women did this, too. 
The astonishing mild climate on the north-west coast (from Oregon to South-Alaska) was the reason that the people mostly went naked. Often the women only wore grass-skirts. 

Clothing material

The choice of the material was always due to practical reasons. Whatever the land provided had been used, for example the skins of certain animals like caribou's and buffalo's because their skins were light, resistant, soft and warm. 
The basic material on the north-west coast for hats and other clothes was cedar bast. The Coast Salish (a tribe), who where living in the southern parts of that area, used the hair of dogs and goats for making poncho-like capes. 

Skin preparation

As most of the clothes were made out of leather, the Indians spent a lot of time on the difficult process of tanning in order to make the skins convenient for wearing.
Firstly the leather side of the fur was fixed in a wooden frame. The skin was treated with train oil, animal brain and urine. After that, the stuff had to be cut and sewed. 
It was really hard work, because leather is a very tough material to work with.

The cut

Whereas the normal Indian clothes were rather wide and therefore convenient, some sub-arctic tribes used certain cuts introduced by the Eskimos. Of course, there were also tight clothes worn by the East-Dakota (for example leggings). 
Buttons were unknown at that time so little holes were pierced into the shirts and skirts and leather bands were pulled through them. 
Usually the clothes had no pockets. 


The Indians decorated their clothes very richly. They used: Coloured glasspearls, animal hair, dyed hedge-hog-bristles, fringes, ermine tails, even human hair and later - projectile cartridges. 
Very often the clothes were painted with geometric symbols.

Loincloths for men

This skirt-like clothing was just a strip of leather or cotton, wrapped around the crotch and fastened with a girdle around the hips. It was some kind of universal clothing for the Indian men. In summer, loin-cloths and shoes were the only things to be worn. 

Dresses, skirts and loincloths for women

Women preferred usually short or long skirts, in case they weren't wearing long dresses. The East-Dakotas wore wrapped skirts and leather shirts.
On the north-west coast sometimes skirts made of grass or bast were used.


Shirt-like overdresses were worn by both sexes. When the weather was bad, the Indians on the north-west coast wore shirts out of leather or fur.
Shirts were also important for the Indian tribes in the Great Plains, who were often riding horses. 


Headgear were used as protection against wind, rain and the sun, but they were also important for fashionable reasons. 
On the north-west coast there was a highly elaborated hat-culture. The hats were plaited out of cedar bast or root fibers. Occasionally men and women wore braided hats, that were shaped conical and painted in several different colours. 
In the northern territories there were very special wooden hats, having the shape of an animal. They were made of a single piece of wood.


After the first contact with Europeans, most of the clothes made of leather were replaced by clothes of other material, introduced by European traders. But moccasins were still the only kind of footwear.
For the use in snow-shoes and canoes the particularly elastic mocca-sins were just the perfect sort of shoe. (Their stylistic development can be documented over the last 200 years.)
Older specimens traditionally consisted of only one single piece of suede. The outer edge of this piece was wrapped up around the an-kle and could be folded up (to protect from snow) or folded down in summer.
It took a certain amount of time for the shoes to adapt to the foot. 
It was often smoked (especially in the eastern woodlands) to prevent the leather from getting hard and to waterproof it. 
Quite similar to the decoration for their clothing, the Indians used hedge-hog bristles as ornaments to moccasins. 
The prairie-moccasin usually had a second piece of tough leather on the bottom side.
There was also a special kind of moccasin for women, which was connected with a certain kind of trousers, called leggings.