The purpose of this blog is to spread the knowledge of fashion culture. These are times where the subject of cultural appropriation in fashion is central in social media discussions (for example in Clubhouse talks) – unfortunately not enough on the traditional media.  Especially regarding the latest Louis Vuitton’s collection by Virgil Abloh and the use of Ghana’s traditional ( and protected ) textiles.

The moral question involved in designing fashion collections should be : Is the collection  “ ‘inappropriate, derogatory, culturally offensive or out of context’ . (Janke 1998: 19)?”

A number of fashion houses have established diversity councils to answer to this question and produce more ethical campaigns and design collections. 

I believe it is also necessary to educate the consumer to these moral and ethical issues so as to guide them towards a more aware and responsible consumption habit. Moreover, it is important to reach all those professionals involved in the issue: stylists, photographers, make-up artists and so on. 

Sustainability is not only about protecting the earth but also protecting the heritage of its people.

“In the context of fashion and textiles, cultural sustainability means transmitting, or supporting the knowledge transfer of traditional textile knowledge and traditional textile cultural expressions to future generations (Bota-Moisin, 2017).”


As a writer I feel the responsibility not to abstract myself from the contents of a book nor be superficial in reviewing them. Especially when the books relate to cultures and heritage. The purpose of this article is to introduce the reader to the developments of Native American Clothing and its evolution during western colonization during the 16th century. It focuses mainly on the garment and accessory production during the 19th century.

All photos, captions and quotes, unless otherwise specified, are extracted from the book.


Clothing has been a means not only to protect one’s body but also as a form of communication. A physical language that informed others primarily – in ancient times – to convey one’s tribal identity, a role within a community, and  – in more modern times -, one’s personality, fashion tastes and also political convictions. 

The study of Native American clothing is not only about design styles that are specific to the dozens of different tribes that were spread throughout the North American continent but also it is a study about the different lifestyles that lead to the development of specific garment styles. 

To identify and attribute a specific garment to a particular tribe or group of tribes it is necessary to have a knowledge of the materials that were available in the different regions and the customs of each group that inhabited these regions.


Animal skins, furs, feathers and bones, vegetable fibers, hemp fibers, silver and copper, shell beads and other “natural” materials were used to create painted or beaded garments, shoes, painting gear , wood carvings, woven mats, splint basketry and pottery. Native crafts that would also be exchanged with – and  soon to be replaced by –  European knives, fish hooks, metal tools, firearms blankets and shirts, ribbons, blue and white glass beads. A necessary exchange to guarantee an economic independence.  But the designs overall remained traditional in style. 

Climate was a major influence on the development of fabric treatments and garment styles. Many Native American tribes learned to treat leather to make it waterproof, which was essential for staying warm and dry.  The use of fringe was developed to pull water off the fabric enabling it to dry faster. 

The development of beadwork was a result of the necessity to decorate imported woolen cloth that did not lend itself to painting. Superb floral beadwork designs were introduced in the 19th century by the Red River Métis tribes, thanks to the new overlay sewing technique that became popular in the period, mostly in the northern Plains region. The religious or spiritual symbolism applied in the painting patterns was transferred to this new technique.

“They love not to be imprisoned in our English fashion…because their Women cannot wash them when they be styled…they rather god naked than be lousie.””. (David Chandler in Shadowland, Gordon Anthony Photographs 1926-1952).”


Cotton was a highly priced material introduced through central Mexico and harvested in the southwest territories in 1200 CE. The southeast regions utilized other plant fibers such as mulberry bark, the Northwest area used redwood, while the Plaines the most common fiber was sagebrush. 

Like in Japanese culture, Indians believed that spirits inhabited not only human beings but animals, plants , rocks, and all natural phenomena. They believed that the power of these spirits survived in the animal and vegetable materials and these powers were transferred to the wearer. Nothing of the animal was wasted during the production of clothing or tools, every part of it was re-employed. Bones became painting tools, animal sinew and porcupine quill-needles were used to sew together the pieces of animal skin or plant fibers.


The beginning of  European colonization of North America  in the 16th century, beyond the dramatic social, health and economic issues that are not the topic of this essay, encouraged an intercultural exchange that had a strong influence on the production of traditional garments and accessories. 

The goods imported from white traders such as cloth, beads, silver ornaments, woolen blankets and cloth garments or other elements of European Folk art where gradually introduced into native garment styles and productions. The “occupation” of American Indian land by Europeans and the pressure they applied on the natives lifestyles affected traditional productions but did not cancel them. 

French ornamental patterns or cuts, such as curvilinear lines that replaced the Native more geometrical forms and the fitted waist and flared lower skirt of French coats,  were integrated in the decoration of skin garments, and Indian girls were educated in embroidery work.

Patterns and styles where also influenced by the interchanges between tribes especially at the intertribal “giveaway” festivities such as the intertribal “prairie style” of beadwork characterized by particular decorations in ribbon work developed by the Grand Lakes tribes relocated to present-day Oklahoma and Kansas.


Traditional costumes continued to be produced to maintain an Indian identity but new designs were developed that were clearly influenced by European clothing styles.

Women adopted cotton shirts, men wore calico and laced white shirts combined with their traditional deerskin leggings, adopted cloth turbans decorated in silver and imported ostrich feathers. Indians transformed their long shirt into European style coats by simply cutting the front open using a belt or sash to keep it closed. They never adopted the use of buttons.

More pictorial and colorful designs decorated new shapes of traditional basic basketry and bags. Butterflies, birds, lizards, snakes and human figures began to adorn the coil baskets that became popular among tourists.


During the colonial expansion, Native American crafts fascinated the European elite  – sailors, traders, missionaries, military people – who gathered and collected Indian objects that they valued as noble and natural. The beliefs that shining metal, white marine shell and crystal had the power to promote health and well-being intrigued white explorers and colonizers who accumulated large amounts of beautiful pieces.  

These collections  became the nucleus of the first public museums during the 19th century. 

Today, a relevant amount of pieces is privately traded by tribal art dealers, at auctions, and private collectors.

“This insatiable curiosity about human life in far-away places and other times is an ancient and distinct feature of Western society, a curiosity that made white people seem distinctly odd to most other peoples.”


Like Japanese shinto beliefs that everything in nature is possessed by a Kami, a spirit. For this reason it must be respected and left undisturbed, Native Indians imbued their craft with the same healing, and spiritual powers that they attributed to the materials they employed.  

Another similarity between Japanese Indian culture concerns the manufacturing of a dedicated style adapted to European tastes. Just as Japanese manufacturing of the late 20th century was partly reconverted to producing handworks that were exclusively manufactured for foreign customers and therefore influenced by western traditions, Native women began producing “colono-Indian” pottery for trade, inspired by their use of imported European pots and pitches in daily life.


Women were responsible for the production of clothing gathering fabrics by roaming the fields and marshes.  But in the craft of basketry they could express their talent, pride and prestige. 

“Artistic expression was well developed among all these native peoples, though they lived in a social context that did not recognize art as something separate from the production of useful garments and utensils. Aesthetic norms were inseparable component in the creation of functional objects; There was no art or art’s sake. Local art styles proclaimed one’s tribal identity.”


The removal Act in 1830 forcibly removed Indian people from their native lands. The “Trail of Tears” is surrounded by thousands of buried Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw; Chicksaw and Seminole people. 

During this Indian genocide,  Indian women developed the most beautiful costumes decorated with abstract and highly stylized floral designs in overlay or spot-stitch or contour beadwork on clothing, accessories and moccasins. New decorative patterns consisted in intertwining diamonds, and zigzags, that typically decorated traditional ceramics.

The surviving members of the southeastern tribes continued the development of their traditional clothing as a means to maintain a sense of identity in a world that was doing its best to annihilate it. Each tribe is identifiable by their own distinctive style.

“The remarkably large production of colorful apparel in this period of poverty and social disintegration was a defiant expression of the people’s cultural pride.”

The more violent Indian tribes, the Iroquoians, known as “man eaters”, were natives from  the lower Great Lakes.  The robes of the Neutral men, who commonly lived in nudity, were known for their robes mad of black squirrel pelts. Decorative patterns were originally abstract and geometrical but a curvilinear art style became popular in the mid 18th century and adopted by the tribes natives of the area around French Quebec suggesting that it was inspired by some form of French art. But also American folk art that emerged from the American Revolution. 

A floral art style emerged in the production of the Huron tribe living in Quebec City. And stimulated by a rising foreign requests from the increasing European tourism in Niagara Falls. 

The spread of Christianity in the 1679’s influenced the development of new decorations that replaced the painted images of life forms birds and animals on Indian robes and painted skins. European military garment also impacted  regional Indian Fashion like this early 19th century beaded and ribboned coat from the Mimic tribe.


The rich decoration of Indian garments reflects the aesthetic creativity of a tribe but in a deeper way, it is inspired and motivated by the desire to please the spirits more than the human eye.

Revelations of patterns appeared in dreams and were transferred to the cloth or pottery.  Decorations for ceremonial clothing found expression in  designs originating from visionary dreams that survived  on the tipis of Blackfeet and Plains Cree tribes.

As an example, the traditional art style of the Canadian Shield that extends form the Great Lakes north in to Labrador and inhabited by regional groups such as the Cree, the Ojibwa, Montagnais or Naksapki, Mistassini and Beothuk, is characterized by triangles, parallel lines and rows of dots symbolizing the trails of animals, combined in rigid geometrical patterns.

“Arranged crosswise, red dots referred to the hunter’s “soul-spirit”; a U-shaped pattern represented antlers and referred to, of course, the caribou. Such painted garments were believed to retain their magical quality for one hunting season only. The intricate and time-consuming painting of a new outfit every year required the successful hunter to have the help of an extra wife, unless there were daughters to do the daily chores.”

The style of Indians in the northeastern forest are recognizable by their symbolic use of painted stripes on the soles of their mocassins. The stripes were considered a protection against evil. Other types of sole-decoration where a reference to their prestige as wealthy horse owners who did not need to walk.


The Southwest regions occupied by Navajo, Apache Pueblo and other tribes developed a native leather cut-cut designs in zigzag lines and geometric forms that exposed red cloth but also assimilated American military symbols .

Patterns in basketry included animal tracks, mountains, clouds or humans. 

“A break or interruption in the main pattern functioned as the entrance or exit of the basket’s spirit, or as the signature of the weaver.”


A particular decorative styled developed by the Chilkat, on the northwestern coast, displayed patterns that covered the whole available surface of the garment, tool or blanket. They often combined old Raventail geometric patterns with human and animal designs or heraldic crest symbols copied from the pattern boards painted by professional male artists. The overall appearances is that of an abstract composition.


In basketry, colors held a symbolic value with a code that is very different from western signifiers. Red indicated courage, yellow referred to love and happiness, green for discretion, black for beauty and the use of white shell represented generosity. 

The choice of colors in mens’ garments was influenced by their activities. Cloths of subdued blue or gray were preferred in order not to attract the attention of game while hunting. 


Patterns and colors also indicated the role of a chief, warrior or hunter.  

This man’s Blackfeet shirt dating 1840, is decorated with brown painted stripes that indicate hostile enemy encounters and therefore identifying its owner as a war veteran. The red designs also indicate the role of “Buffalo caller” who lured the herd into the corral. This shirt probably was worn on ceremonial occasions.

The second robe translates in symbolic patterns painted on a native skin the personal achievements of its owner. The brown stripes indicating the  hostile enemy encounters, the column of red pipes refer to the number of times he has led a war party. The five red and black stylized  human figures represent “ enemies ill-struck in ‘coup counting” . On the back of the shirt a series of horse quirts and the hoof patterns on the bottom of the leggings indicate the number of captured horses.  

Shaman ceremonial clothing presented very specific symbols. 

“Their spirit helpers were often pictured in “X-ray” style, displaying skeletal details to connote the regeneration of life. Joint marks, often pictured as faces, referred to the belief that the joints are activated by a spiritual force residing in each of them.”


As hunters and fishermen, Native Indians’s beliefs in the hidden spirits within animals translated in decorations that transferred the spirit’s power to the garment, baskets bags and tools. Supernatural creatures, such sa bear, rave or killer whales, were also part of the Indian iconography and were associated to mythical ancestors and treated as heraldic crests.

This religious worldview inspired the regional art. Giants, sea monsters, ogres and wolf spirits haunting the sea waters and deep forests were painted on fishing  harpoons and hunting tools and on masks used in dance rituals.

Thunderbird was associated with whaling, war and wealth.   


One of the symbolic acts that characterized the northwestern tribes that inhabited the Alaskan territory reflected the intimate connection between the individual and his or her clothing. Garments were never borrowed but those of successful hunters were precious gifts that – it was believed – transferred the qualities and accomplishments  to the new owners. Not the power of the spirit in the animal or a plant but the strength and abilities of the human being.Tunics with pointed lower edges front and rear and footed leggings worn by men and women among the Dene people were characterized by a very unique style.

Red ocher lines were painted across along the seams of the garments, long fringes  were quill-wrapped and strung with silver willow seeds were popular on belts and garters.


As a European I was not very well educated on the profound tragedy of the Native American Indian destiny, it has been a powerful revelation and a new fundamental point of view to reflect on what can be a new contribution, from a historic perspective, to the fashion discourse on cultural sustainability today .

Please visit the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights initiative web site to learn more about how to be creative and at the same time protect other cultures’ heritages and rights. The mission of the organization is tois to promote and implement benefit-sharing business models for  fostering socially and culturally sustainable collaborations between craftspeople and contemporary designers in the fashion business, based on a fair distribution of intellectual property rights and cultural intellectual property rights®.”



It is impossible to describe in just one blog post the  different varieties of cuts, patterns, materials that constituted a tribes clothing style. It goes beyond the intent of this article which is meant to give an overall view and description of the most common elements and differences on a more general basis.

For those interested in researching the topic, this book describes the history, influences and evolutions in styles for the production of clothing and pottery, of the different regions and tribes that inhabited them. The research of Native American Clothing is introduced by very detailed description of the effects of British French and Spanish colonization and of the Christian faith, from a political, social, economic, and cultural point of view.

The book is a survey on the different distinctive regional styles of the Native Americans spread all over the American soil that reflected their different languages, customs, activities, and use of materials provided by the land or the coasts they inhabited. These differences can be detected in their clothing designs and decorations that varied but also influenced other tribes’ productions.  





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