The styles and types of clothing that Native Americans wore before having contact with Europeans were as varied as the tribes themselves. The Esselen tribe that resided in the warm California wore little to no clothes at all, while tribes that lived in the plains wore deerskin breechcloths, leggings and tunic shirts during the harsh winter months.
Common among all tribes, though, was resourcefulness and creativity – both of which contributed to their ability to fashion garments out of items in their immediate surroundings.
The Chickasaw Nation
This tribe originally lived in a region that now makes up the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. Before European contact, the Chickasaw used animal skins sewn together with deer sinew to make dresses for the women and long shirts and breechcloths for the men for summer wear. In the winter, the Chickasaw typically wore the hides of furrier animals, such as bears, beaver or buffalo, with the fur against their skin. Leggings made from skins were also worn in the winter. These leggings were held in place by garters and also by straps connecting them to a belt.
The Chickasaw crafted shoes from animal skins, decorating them with shells or beads. To protect their legs from thorns and brambles, hunters would don thigh-high boots.
On some occasions, men would wear a cloak that was made from material that had been spun from grasses or bark. This cloak was worn in such a manner as to leave the right breast bare.
Both sexes wore ear ornaments, and men would sometimes wear eagle feathers on their heads and shoulders. Males would also sometimes apply face paint, but only for war.
Greater Sioux Nation
Dresses for Sioux women were typically long and made of either deer or elk skin. Like the Chickasaw, Sioux men wore breechcloths, shirts and leggings. During the cold winter months, the Sioux used buffalo-hide robes for warmth.
The Sioux also used buffalo skins as a disguise while hunting. A hunter would cover himself under a hide and then try to sneak up on unsuspecting buffalo herds, hoping that they wouldn’t notice his approach.
While many people associate the feathered war bonnet with all Native Americans, these magnificent headpieces were what Sioux warriors wore. Only distinguished and respected warriors of a tribe were allowed to wear buffalo horn headdresses.
The Caddo tribe
The Caddo tribe lived in the southern plains areas of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. Like many other tribes, the Caddo men wore deerskin breechcloths and leggings. In addition to deerskin, Caddo women also used woven fibers to create skirts and poncho tops for themselves.
The hair of Caddo warriors was either cut into a Mohawk or shaven, save for one long lock of hair that was worn on top of their heads. Some warriors would dress their Mohawks with headdresses known as porcupine roaches. This head piece was made of stiff animal hair that stood up like bristles and was sometimes dyed colors to make it look even more impressive.
In many ways, clothing is much more than a simple cover-up. It is, in fact, a rich source of information about each tribe. Everything from the types of materials used to the amount of clothing each nation wore provides historians valuable clues as to the type of environment that the wearers lived in and what resources were available to them.