THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY
This article first appeared in the Brand Book (January 1959 Volume 1 Number 3, Publication No. 68)
THE PLAINS' INDIAN SHIRTS
By Colin Taylor
For everyday wear the costume of the Plains Indian warrior was not elaborate; it consisted usually of skin moccasins, breechclout, leggings, and occasionally in the North a shirt, with buffalo robe over all. In the old days (1750-1840) the principal upper body covering for men was the buffalo robe. Shirts were in existence in the North without doubt and were used according to individuals, but between these dates the shirt was principally used for ceremonial regalia. After 1840 with increasing contact and trade with whites, cloth was much used, trousers and shirts of white manufacture were worn. Traders often made gifts of fantastic ‘generals’ uniforms to principal chiefs, and it was not uncommon to see warriors wearing modern dress coats, with loose ‘pantaloons’, at the beginning of the last century. Since this type of clothing may be regarded as an intrusion it will not be further discussed.
It is positive that the hide shirt had a very limited distribution on the Plains. In the 1750’s to the 1840-50’s it probably only existed amongst the Northern tribes, such as the Assiniboin, Gros Ventre and Blackfeet, and perhaps to a lesser extent the Crow and the Sioux. Those village tribes a little further East such as the Arikira and Mandan made little use of the shirt; what shirts they did wear (principally ceremonial) were obtained in trade. Catlin1 does not figure any shirt-wearing Comanche, Kiowa and Wichita on the Southern Plains; Wall ace and Hoebel’s2 informants interviewed in the early 1940’s say however, it was worn in pre-reservation days. Since it is most unlikely that the oldest of these informants could date his earliest personal recollections before the 1860’s, it leaves much room for doubt. Again Catlin was amongst the Plains Indians in the summer, and was ill a good bit of the time; had he visited them in winter he might have left different pictures. The climate however, cannot be looked upon as a definite deciding factor; many writers remark on the extraordinary disregard the Indians had for the cold in the severe climates of the North. On the Southern Plains, winters were often below freezing point, but it is safe to say that these Southern Indians had as much immunity as their Northern counterparts. There is a complete lack of early Southern Plains shirts in any of the world’s collections. Many of the world’s eminent experts on Indians are in favour with the writer to the conclusion that no shirts existed except of course in one or two chance occasions, amongst the Southern Plains Indians prior to 1850 which were of native manufacture; after this date, however, with continued contact with the whites, and a probable wider diffusion of culture from the Northern Plains, the shirt appears quite frequently amongst them. The Plateau tribes were influenced accordingly; for instance, Lewis and Clark (1804) found the Shoshone well dressed in typical Northern Plains fashion-wearing shirts of deerhide, antelope, bighorn, or more rarely elkskin; this is true of the Okanagon, Flathead, Nez Perce and all the Plateau tribes.
The origin of the shirt seems lost. It is highly probable that the Eskimo, and the Canadian Dene tribes below them, were the original inventors, although their garments were extremely well developed, that is they were cut to conform to the body. The arms and bottoms of these shirts were tailored, which is not so of the Indians further south who may have been influenced by them, as will be later discussed. It is not unlikely that the Plains shirt was invented independently by them as the basic structure is extremely simple.
Deerskin was the hide considered most suitable for shirts; bison was inclined to be too coarse, and elk-skin too thick; those tribes near the Rockies (i.e. Blackfeet and Crow), sometimes used the Bighorn this was especially true for ceremonial regalia. Curtis3 states that clothes were always made from old tipi covers of buffalo hide; the smoke and wear, tanning and thinning, made the hide suitable for use. Curtis is somewhat inclined to be too specific in his statements; it is certain tipi covers were but a very minor source of material.
Figures 1 & 2 Pattern for man's shirt, 18th & 19th Century; two deerskins required. Figure 2 illustrates finished shirt. The coloured bands on the shoulders and arms show approximate positions of quilled or beaded bands. Red dotted line denotes fold; Red continuous lines denote cut. Figure 1 A-Neck yoke, B-Arms and C-Body.
The procedure for making a shirt was as follows (the basic method has been the same since at least 1800, and continued in many cases until as late as the 1900’s). Two skins were used, each hide was cut about ¾ up from the bottom; the top half went into making the arms, and the lower half for the body. The lower half, Fig. 1C was sewn along the top leaving an opening for the head, laces were inserted both side of the neck, and could be used to vary the size of the opening; the shirt was not split down the front as are the very modern shirts.
The top half of the shirt was folded, Fig. 1B, and sewn to the body of the shirt. The sewing was very durable, done with sinew and bone awl in early times; the shirt often wore out before the seams. In the older shirt the sides and the top part of the arm were not sewn, but either laced or left free; this gave an advantage in war when the sleeves could be thrown back, allowing much freer movement of the arms. Dr. Wissler states that the Arapaho sewed their shirts throughout; however, since the shirt was a relatively recent addition to the Arapaho, this would coincide with available data that many shirts of a later date were completely sewn throughout. These shirts are classified as the ‘Poncho’ type, that is there was no collar as in the European cut, and when suspended, the sleeve and the shoulder ran horizontally. In most specimens examined, and from drawings and photos up into the 1900’s, the shape of the original hide is extremely noticeable. The legs still hang from the bottom of the shirt (the hind legs of the animal) and the front legs hang from the arms about half way up; these are probably left as decorations, for in some specimens the leg projections have been sewn back on, from their probably lacking in the original hide; the tail, too, is often noticeable. Many modern counterparts are cut with no respect to the hide whatsoever, the legs are cut off and in most instances the shirt is straight cut across the bottom, and usually fringed.
The everyday shirt was about three feet long, reaching about midway down the average man’s thigh, although at times, especially in the early 1800’s many of them were extremely long; this is most typical of the Western North Plains, probably on account of their using Bighorn skins. A few were short reaching to the hips or a little below. There seems to have been little change in the length, especially where the old pattern of cutting is used, since the size of the animal would be the deciding factor. Some men's hunting shirts often had short sleeves for ease in butchering, the only decoration was fringing. Although later calico shirts were worn, the buckskin ones had the advantage of greater durability – one shirt lasting about a year. 100 years ago a calico shirt was reckoned at one buffalo robe, or about $3 which is a considerable price for that time. Such was the daily wear.
On ceremonial occasions they wore more elaborate clothing, which was decorated in a variety of ways; the shirts were usually of native make and were valued more highly than anything of European manufacture. The conception of the average person when visualizing a Plains Indian thinks of beaded or quilled decoration, but it should be pointed out that such costume cannot be considered as typical daily wear any more than the men's tuxedo or women’s evening gown could be called most typical of today's clothing.
The Crows were considered the finest clad Indians in the old days. Their women did some of the finest embroidery, the men made the finest bonnets, and they were one of the richest of all the Plains tribes. Next come probably the Blackfeet, Sioux, Assiniboin, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Cree, Gros Ventre and others less prosperous. The basic structure for the ceremonial shirt was the same as for everyday wear. At the neck opening back and front, is usually hung a triangular shaped piece of hide. In the old days it was not decorated except with fringing, although in the last two or three decades of the 19th century, bead or quilled work was often applied, the average measured approximately 7” long by 6” wide at the top. Wissler5 suggests that this was originally a knife sheath. Another opinion, held by the writer, is that the flap was suggested from the head piece; see Fig. lA, which was left over when cutting the original hide.
Some of these flaps are rectangular and are perhaps more characteristic of the Blackfeet and Assiniboin; they measure approximately 11” by 3” and on many shirt specimens collected in the 1880 period they are made of red trade cloth. A typical feature when the rectangular flap is used is a large disk in quillwork, or later in beadwork worked on the chest and back. This decoration was considered most characteristic of the Assiniboin and was said by other tribes to have originated amongst them. It is by no means exclusive to them, however, appearing often in Blackfeet, Crow, Sioux, Nez Perce and Shoshone work. Usually where the disk is used the triangular flap is lacking.
A typical feature of the Nez Perce and Blackfeet shirt is the piercing with innumerable small holes, which are never more than a third of an inch in diameter, but cover the entire shirt. Other Plateau tribes used this feature also.
The Sioux often painted their shirts two colours, the top in blue and the lower half in yellow (occasionally green was used). This was also true of the Crow and some Plateau tribes. It was not unusual for Sioux and some Plateau shirts to bear painted designs, representing dreams or visions; some were connected with the guardian spirit and others, with incidents of the chase and of war. It is not common for Blackfeet to paint live figures on their shirts, but many Blackfeet shirts exhibit parallel painted lines, either across the body of the shirt or down the arms and they are usually painted in black or dark blue, although green and red are not uncommon. There is no fixed interpretation to the lines; many fanciful interpretations by imaginative writers are completely unsubstantiated. It is said by some B1ackfeet informants, however, that a man who had killed an enemy could call upon another who had previously performed that act, to paint these stripes on leggings and shirt if he wished to do so. The number of stripes was according to his taste and bore no relation to the number of enemy killed. A typical Blackfeet feature of the late 19th century is the painting of tadpole-like figures on shirts and leggings although they too, may have had some meaning, they were probably only looked upon as decorative by most wearers. (These are sometimes said to represent bullets.)
The most characteristic tribal features of any shirts are the shoulder and arm stripes. These are suspender like pieces running over the shoulders and down the front and back, and another strip down the arms; they are undoubtedly derived from the epaulets of the American Army. From the pictures by Bodmer and Catlin, and in a few early specimens, it appears that the arm stripes have long been in use, reaching from the shoulder to the wrist, and on the average 1½ – 2” wide. The shirt stripes were rather poorly developed in the 1830’s, but well developed by the 1865’s. All these early shirts bearing the shoulder stripes have them running over the shoulder seam, covering the joint. At a later date these stripes slant further inwards, the seam being covered by a fringe. The shoulder stripes around and after the 1860’s measure on the average 21” long by 3” wide; 14” of this show down the front of the shirt, and the other 7” at the back (shirts of a more modern era, i.e. after 1870 show a definite front and back; earlier ones have little or no difference between them). Present modern-day shirts have beaded bands anything up to 40” long by 4” wide. The type of bead and pattern used on the stripes is also a good indication of both age and tribe. Prior to 1840, quillwork predominated, so-called pony beads were also used; these measured about ⅛” in diameter, the principal colours used were blue, white and black. Any shirt showing pony beads is probably at least eighty years old, for except amongst the Blackfeet this type gave way to the smaller type of seed bead about 1850, these beads being 1/16” to 3/32” in diameter and in the older specimens varying considerably in thickness. That is the distance across the bead at right angles to the central opening is quite uniform in any given size, but the diameter parallel with the hole varies considerably. Often one edge is thicker than the other. In recent times this irregularity hardly exists, probably because of improved methods of manufacture. The presence or absence of this unevenness is a clue to the age of the specimen. The older beads of this type are opaque, and have softer, richer colours than are seen today. Translucent beads do not seem to appear before sixty or seventy years ago. Metal or glass beads, coloured silver or gilt, and faceted throughout, were introduced after 1885. Before 1860 on the plains at least, it seems that no patterns existed which could be considered typical of anyone tribe; after this period most of the major Plains tribes developed a style which was frequently almost exclusive to them.
Two methods of application of the beads to the hide were used. One, the so-called ‘Lazy Squaw Stitch’, may be considered most typical of the Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, although the Crow, Assiniboin, Ute, Gros Ventre, Shoshone partly used it. The Overlay stitch is used entirely by the Blackfeet, Sarsi, Plains Cree, and Flathead, and in part by the Crow, Shoshone, Assiniboin and Gros Ventre. Tribes on the Southern Plains only occasionally did beadwork, which consisted of narrow bands for trimming edges etc.; the lazy stitch was then used.
Bead weaving is uncommon to the Plains Indians. Three principal design styles existed in Plains beadwork patterns; they were Blackfeet (Northern Plains, Sioux (Central Plains), and Crow. The photographs accompanying this paper help illustrate these design styles, but the full discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.
Figure 3. This plate depicts the back of a typical Plains Indian shirt stripped of all decoration save fringing. The front is decorated with dyed quill, glass beads and human hair locks. Note the shape which characterizes shirts made from two deer-skins. The style predominated for a good hundred years on the Plains; the making of shirts such as these shows great economy of labour and materials.
Although the text remains largely unchanged this image replaces the 1959 photograph and the text amended accordingly. This shirt is in the collection of Reinhard Haefele
Figure 4. This shows a Crow Indian shirt which was sold at auction. This specimen shows the position of the arm and shoulder bands, but the view is of the back of the shirt, since the fringe normally hangs on the outside of the arms when worn.
Women's dresses were also made of two deer-skins and again advantage was taken of the natural contour of the hide. It must not be thought that this peculiarity is characteristic of the Plains Indians alone. It seems, in most instances, that the native tailor in many parts of the world made the most of what materials he had at hand, and used it to its fullest, with minimum wastage.
For example, the shirt or poncho worn by the Indians of South America: although they are woven cloth, the finished products are like rectangular bags with a hole for the head and one for each arm. It appears that these people like many others, did not cut their cloth but wove the garment entire. Now, weaving in the primitive sense, and even in modern times, must proceed in rectangular units; hence, a woven garment is bound to be rectangular, and once again we find the contour of a shirt largely the inevitable result of the choice of materials. We may now generalise and say that the style of shirt on the Plains and other regions, as well as other garments of native manufacture, were not so much creations of the imagination but grew naturally out of the form of the material used.
'Other Regions' would include the South American Indians, and ancient Greeks and Romans. The Eskimo’s were good tailors, who cut their material to fit the body, but with the exception of the Chinese, who also tailored their clothing, as far as native work goes, fully-tailored garments appear only amongst the peoples occupying the Arctic regions of the world.
Although the text remains largely unchanged this image replaces the 1959 photograph and the text amended accordingly.
Figure 5. Cheyenne Indian Buckskin Shirt, decorated with quill-work and hair locks.
Although the text remains largely unchanged this image replaces the 1959 photograph and the text amended accordingly.
No suitable image yet located
Figure 6. Piegan (Blackfoot) Indian Buckskin Shirt, decorated with typical Northern Plains beadwork, ermine skins and strands of human hair.
1. Catlin, George. North American Indians (Edinburgh, 1926, 2 Vols.).
2. Wallace, Ernest & Hoebel, E. Adamson, The Comanches, Lords of the South Plains. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1952).
3. Curtis, Edward. The North American Indian, (40 Vols. University of Massachusetts Press, 1907-30).
4. Wissler, Clark. Costumes of the Plains Indians, (American Museum of Natural History, 1915, Vol. 17, pp.39-91).
1959 Editorial Note: Owing to lack of space, it was impossible to include all of the illustrations – together with their long, analytical captions – which were submitted with this article. Those illustrations which have been reproduced have been carefully selected to present a sound, broad outline of the subject.
The bibliography is too long to list fully here. I would like to thank sincerely the following people for their kind and very helpful interest:
John C. Ewers, Associate Curator of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institute, who helped and advised on many points; Alice Marriott, Oraibi, Arizona; Herbert Krieger, Dept. of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institute; Geoffrey Turner at the University Museum, Oxford; and the late Frederick Douglas of the Denver Art Museum.
I have used some of the material of Clark Wissler from the publications of the American Museum of Natural History; and much work has been done in studying journals and narratives of early American explorations.
Last, but certainly by no means least, thanks to Cottie Burland and Adrian Digby in the British Museum for their kind co-operation.
English Westerners' Society
Copyright © 2010-13 English Westerners' Society