Clothing

 
 

Overview

Clothing varied from season to season, but mainly consisted of woven cloth or deer skin.  The women wore dresses, the men wore pants, and everybody wore shoes.  In winter, the wore a cloak made of woven cloth or fur.  Hair styles differed wildly from clan to clan.  Some men were clean shaven, others wore beards, some men shaved their heads, others wore a top-knot or pony-tail.  The Long Hair Clan wore their hair in fancy hairdos with waves, curls, and sometimes articles woven into their hair for a spectacular effect.


Cherokees were not feather-nuts and never wore huge feather head-dresses like the Woodland or Plains people.  The only time a Cherokee would wear a feather was in time of war or during a Ball Game similar to La Cross.  In preparation for war, the priest (medicine man) from the Paint Clan (Ani Wodi) would prepare the feathers for the warriors to wear into battle.  This consisted of a single Eagle or Hawk feather, with a small feather, dyed blood red, tied to the top.  The feathers would then be tied into the Cherokee warrior’s hair, on the top of his head.  The dying technique was considered a secret and sacred rite. 


Women 


The women wore short, close-fitting, sleeveless dresses similar to a ‘summer shift’. The dresses were made of deerskin and typically reached mid thigh. They were belted at the waist with hand-woven belts and pinned at the breast with bone pins or carved broaches. A deer-hide scarf was worn around the neck and tucked into the top of the dress.  A knitted or woven under-skirt, made of wild hemp, went from the waist to the knees, and had long fringes that went to the ankles.  

The women’s moccasins were made of soft leather and were laced up to the knee. Women of status had colored beads or feathers arranged in patterns in the under-skirt fringe. Colored seed-beads were used to decorate their moccasins. 


Hair was combed with bear grease to give it a deep shine, and sprinkled it with red and yellow dust.  Some let their hair hang loose, while others tied it up into a knot on top of the head. They had pierced ears and wore earrings made of shell and bone. They wore multiple necklaces made of shell, bone, or horn that hung in successive layers to nearly cover their chest. Metal rings, made of beaten lead and copper, adorned their hands.


Daily wear was made of tanned deer skin, but for special occasions, dresses made of woven mulberry-root bark and turkey feathers. Possum hair was spun into thread and dyed yellow, black or red. The dyed thread was used to weave belts, anklets, and garters for the men. Each woman developed her own special pattern for her husband to wear, which served as a ‘wedding ring’.


A special chapter is the famous Tear Dress. The following information has been extracted from The People's Paths home page. The author of the article is Wendell Cochran, Cherokee Master Craftsman and National Living Treasure in the Area of Traditional Clothing and he kindly let me extract parts of the article, which I have done clumsily, but I encourage you to read it complete here, it is a wonderful piece of historical accurate information and it will teach you how a real tear dress should be. Mr Cochran also sent me the photo illustrating his article.


"The Cherokee Tear Dress is the official tribal dress for women of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma by proclamation of the National Council. The Cherokee Nation is the only tribe to my knowledge to legislate a specific style of clothing as the official tribal dress. The Cherokees of North Carolina have a completely different style of dress.

The word "tear" is pronounced as in "rip and tear", not tear as in the act of crying or in Tail of Tears. No one can remember who named it the Tear Dress. The name is onomatopoeia; it describes how the pieces of the dress are cut during construction. The original dress was constructed of simple shapes of squares and rectangles and each piece was torn across the grain of the fabric and not cut with scissors.

The dress is a basic shirt-waist style. The bodice top (the old fashion term is waist) is attached the skirt by means of an inset waistband and closes up the front with buttons, much like a man’s shirt. To provide ease, shape and form, larger pieces are gathered and sewn onto smaller pieces of the garment. Historically, this style of shirt-waist dress was worn by working class women -- trades people, farmers, crafters, etc., who did not have the luxury of having a personal attendant to help them get dressed each day like the privileged class who dressed in stylish, form fitting garments that were fastened up the back with rows of hooks and eyes. This was the type dress that was made at home, either by a member of the family, or by the neighborhood seamstress.

The dress is practical for two reasons:

The fullness of the gathered bodice and skirt gave the wearer freedom of movement to do the labor of daily work chores, and the one piece construction allowed women to bend and stretch with out fretting with the problem of keeping a waist tucked in or hooked to a skirt. Making a Cherokee Tear Dress requires a medium-to-advanced knowledge of garment construction and sewing skills. A well fitting dress requires taking accurate measurements, a fair understanding of the sequence of steps needed to cut, sew and finish the dress, and a lot of patience. There are a few commercially printed tear dress patterns now available on the market, but none give complete instructions or are self-explanatory to the novice tear dressmaker.

Measurements:

Every tear dress is one-of-a-kind original creation and is usually made to fit the individual.

 

The information has been extracted from the site The People's path home page and the books "The Cherokees" by Grace Steele Woodward, "The Cherokee Indian Nation, a troubled history" edited by Duane H. King, "History, Myths and sacred formulas of

the Cherokees" by James Mooney and "The Cherokee People" by Thomas E. Mails

"The Original Cherokee Tear Dress, a White Turkey Feather Cape and a Copper Crown were created for Virginia Stroud during her reign as Miss Indian America 1968. The cotton fabric Cherokee Tear Dress (shown worn by a model in the photo) is the first modern-day Tear Dress and it is the prototype of all Cherokee Tear Dresses since then. A White Turkey Feather Cape, exactly like the one shown in the photo, was made for Miss Stroud to wear during her reign. At the end of her year-long reigh, the original cape was then passed to reigning Miss Cherokee 1969.

This original three-piece outfit was last shown in its entirety in a fashion show presented by Wendell Cochran (adjusting the feather cape in the photo) during the Indian Symposium at Northeastern State University at Tahlequah, Oklahoma in April 2000. The Original Dress and Copper Crown are the property of Virginia Stroud. The White Turkey Feather Cape, which was worn as part of the official Miss Cherokee wardrobe, was retired during the late 1970’s and not replaced by a new one; this one along with the first original cape are currently in the permanent collection of the Cherokee National Heritage Society, Tahlequah, OK.

The Copper Crown was designed and made by Willard Stone, acclaimed Cherokee Wood Sculpture from Locust Grove, Oklahoma. Mr. Stone was commissioned in 1968 to make two identical crowns: one inscribed with the title “ Miss Indian America 1968” (it is the one shown in the picture); the other inscribed “ Miss Cherokee”. Both crowns were identical in size, shape and engraved with the same turkey feather and turkey tracks motifs; the only differences were the engraved titles. Miss Stroud’s “Miss Indian America” crown, missing for almost twenty years, was returned and is now in her possession. The “Miss Cherokee” crown, past yearly to each succeeding Miss Cherokee for more than twenty years was eventually retired and a replacement commissioned. It is now in the permanent collection at the Heritage Society.

Note the details of this dress: the short, below the knee length of the skirt; three-quarter sleeves with very narrow binding and a plain rounded neck without a neck collar. The band of diamond applique trim on the skirt and those across the shoulder yoke are very narrow compared to trim seen on tear dressed today. Please note that there are no trim bands on the sleeves." - Wendell Cochran

The True History of the Cherokee Tear Dress.

This story may seem shocking and little sad to some who are romantically inclined to the modern myth about the Tear Dress. The myth is that our women wore this style of dress at the time of the Trail of Tears in 1838-39. That is not true for two reasons.

First of all, Cherokee never had a traditional style of dress that was unique or ethnically different than any other tribe in the hot and humid Southeastern United States. The clothing of both sexes, as described by the very earliest European adventurers, was primitive and scant, covering mostly their private parts, and made of mostly animal hides and furs. They did use a rudimentary form of finger weaving and netting to make sashes, belts and rope. Loom weaving technology, which would allow them to make piece goods, was not available until the opening of the frontier to missionaries, the Moravians in particular.

The clothing they made was fashioned on the type of clothing they were taught to make plain, simple and utilitarian. Frontier fashion was nothing like those seen in picture books and paintings of the ladies in eastern sea coast cities such as Boston, Philadelphia or New York. The second reason that the Tear Dress could not have been worn at the time of the Trail of Tears is because the style is completely wrong for the period. Women’s fashions of every historical period have a very definite silhouette, related primarily to the rise and fall of the waistline and the shape and size of the skirt.

In the late 1830’s, the period of the beginning and the end of the Trail of Tears episode, women of fashion in the cities along the eastern seaboard were wearing garments that costume historians call late Empire, Romantic period, or Early Victorian. The Tear Dress is definitely a style that came into fashion at a later date.

There is one painting extant of a Texas Cherokee couple which shows the woman wearing a most definite "Empire" style gown – high waist, bell shaped skirt and short puff sleeves. Whether this painting was executed on site with real Cherokees as models, thus recording a moment in time, or was finished by the artist at a later time, and using another model in city-fied clothing. It was not uncommon for artists to use substitute models when painting Indian subjects.

The first official tear dress was made for and worn by Virginia Stroud during her reign in the titled position as "Miss Indian America" 1969.  The garment we call the Cherokee Tear Dress came about to fulfill the needs of a particular situation and had more to do with embarrassment than it had to do with tribal pride or tradition. The situation arose in 1968 when a young Cherokee woman, by the name of Virginia Stroud, was chosen as "Miss Indian America". She had competed and was crowned in a Kiowa buckskin dress she had borrowed from a college friend.

W.W. Keeler, who was the appointed Cherokee Chief at the time, was approached by a group of Cherokee women about Virginia Stroud’s official wardrobe. They felt it was unacceptable for a Cherokee women who was suppose to be representing the Cherokee people in the public eye was appearing at public events dressed as a Kiowa. Chief Keeler agreed and appointed a committee of Cherokee women to find something more appropriate for Miss Stroud that would reflect the Cherokee’s eastern woodland traditions, history and style.

They could not find an established precedence in Oklahoma for a traditional tribal dress. The answer they decided could only be found someplace in North Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee. The ladies mounted a serious search for a record of a dress design that would be uniquely Cherokee and acceptable by Chief Keeler. They did not want to simply copy or adapt any other tribe’s style. And they did not want the dress to look anything like the Plain’s Indian dress. They also wanted the dress to be historically correct and if a dress could be found, it had to be documented.

Ms. Stroud flew back to Tulsa and was met by a personal representative of Chief Keeler. It was at that point that Chief Keeler and his handpicked committee of Cherokee women began their search to find a suitable Cherokee outfit for her to wear. Two of the women on the committee were Marie Waddle, a BIA employee, and Wynona Day, the daughter of an influential Cherokee family from the days before statehood. Wynona Day is the person responsible for discovering the dress that became the prototype and model for the modern day Tear Dress. I have recently been told that the dress actually belonged to Wynona Day’s Grandmother or great-grandmother and that it had in truth been stored in a trunk. She had come across it by chance after she inherited her mother's belongings. She remembered having seen the dress and had retrieved it for the committee to examine.

As soon as the committee of women decided that Wynona’s Grandmother’s hand made dress would be perfectly acceptable for the new Miss Indian America to wear as a representative of the Cherokee people, Chief Keeler concurred. The next step was to get a new Tear Dress made for Virginia to wear.

Virginia Stroud’s sister, Elizabeth Walters, who she calls B, made the new dress. She copied the dress line for line, including duplicating the reverse applique on the decorative bands over the shoulders and around the skirt. The dress has a square neckline and no buttons or buttonholes. It closes with hooks and eyes; however the original had no visible means of fastening the dress with modern closures. We believe that according to fashion research, it was common practice for women to use broach pins to fasten blouses and those garments known as waists. Today we would probably just use safety pins."

Men 


Summer clothing consisted of a breechclout made of soft tanned deer skin, pulled up between the legs, secured at the waist with thongs, which allowed the ends to hang nearly to the knees in front and back. A shorter version was also available that used less material that was similar to a man’s briefs, which was tied at the sides with thongs.  

They wore simple skin belts until they were married, and had a deer skin ‘purse’ suspended from their belt in front. A knife made of flint, obsidian, or copper, with a wooden or bone handle was worn on the right side of the belt. Men’s moccasins were short with flaps on either side to help protect the ankles from brush. For hunting or warfare, men wore leather ‘chaps’ or leggings that went from the ankle to mid-thigh, and were fastened to the belt with thongs. 

Winter clothing consisted of deer skin shirts, fur robes, and moccasins made of beaver or muskrat skin, with the fur on the inside to keep the feet warm. The men had hats made of beaver fur, or woven turbans made of hide or cloth. They had ‘pony-tails’ on top of their heads, threaded or pulled into hollow tubes of bone or antler, with the tip of the pony-tail protruding. The ‘tip’ was well greased and sprinkled with red or yellow dust. Their hats were open at the top, to allow their pony-tail to protrude.  Around the base of the pony-tail, a ring of hair was shaved or plucked out to a width of about 2 inches. The sides of the hair was neatly trimmed, exposing the ears and ear-rings. 


Men of the Long Hair Clan wore their hair as the name implies. They did not have pony-tails, but used cloth or leather head-bands with a false pony-tail attached to the front, made of animal hair. In ancient times, the Cherokee men sported beards, braided in the center, and on each side of the mouth.  Later, they adopted the style of shaving or plucking out the unwanted facial hair. 


Men’s decoration consisted of woven belts, anklets and wrist bands made by their wives. Thong necklaces consisted of bone, claw, teeth, shells, copper plates, hammered lead, and large carved shell plates called ‘gorgets’. Men also had pierced ears, with large shell or metal plates inserted into the holes, stretching the ear-lobes to great size. Men were often tattooed, by pricking the skin and rubbing the wound with ashes from a fire, to give the tattoo a dark color.  


War and ball-game attire was much the same, but with the addition of feathers. Each warrior or ball player tied one feather to the top of their pony-tail, and another smaller red feather was attached to the top of the larger feather. The art of feather dying was reserved for the shaman of the Paint Clan. 


Special Attire 


For Stomp Dances, men and women would attach shell rattles to their ankles. The dance leaders would use small turtle shells filled with rocks, to make a rattling sound with each dance step.  Fancy dress moccasins were decorated with colored beads, porcupine quills, and bits of dyed thread. Special head and hair ornaments were made from possum hair, died black, yellow or red. 


For Marriage Ceremony,  please see the description under the section ‘Marriage Ceremony’. 


For Booger Dances, which some say originated after first white contact, the men would dress in white-man’s clothing with absurd ‘caricature’ faces, with long noses reminiscent of phallic symbols.  Please see section on the “Booger Dance”.

 

Children 

Young children usually went naked in the warmer months. Older children wore woven cloth or skin skirts, and they had fur robes and moccasins for winter use. As the children approached puberty, adult clothing was provided.