Northern Plains Cloth Dresses
by Rosemary Lessard
originally published as CIHA Indian Craft Series No. 1009
First of all, this isn’t strictly a
how-to-do-it article, but rather a descriptive one on a few types of
undecorated Northern Plains cloth dresses. It was begun as an addition and
complement to Edie Head’s article on Southern Plains (Kiowa and Commanche)
taffeta dresses. All the basic dresses herein described can be made in a day
-- but remember “Undecorated” is a relative term, and ribbon or binding or
even a little beadwork may be necessary to complete a dress. But you don’t
need three kilo of size 4/0 beads or 800 elk teeth, or a gallon of dentalia
to make any one of these dresses -- may this simplicity of design bring hope
to female Indianists everywhere. And, if you want to spend more time
and money later on, two of these types of dresses may be elaborated into a
more formal costume.
These four types of simple cloth dresses
seem to be poorly represented in museum collections, and I believe that no
specimens of the modern Northern Plains pow-wow dresses have been collected
by museums. So, although you may not have the opportunity to handle and
examine one of these dresses, they do (and did) exist, and examples of all
these garments can be found in photographs both old and new, many published.
I’ll describe each dress type in words and
pictures, with a list of accessories. Some of these accessories are
essentials in each case; you can’t just put on the dress and go dancing,
All of these dress
styles are appropriate wear at a pow-wow, Indian or White, and are or were
worn to dances by Indian women. The three older styles, when undecorated,
might also be everyday attire, but accessories were added to dress up for a
dance or ceremonial occasion. None of these older types of dresses are used
for informal wear nowadays but I have seen the contemporary style as an
everyday garment among conservative Crow women -- made from cotton cloth in
less bright colors than those used in pow-wow dresses.
SIOUX CLOTH DRESS
This type of dress is well-known, every
hobbyists has seen photos of such Sioux dresses decorated with dentalium
shells or bone “elk teeth”. Similar dresses without the decoration were also
made and worn -- usually as less formal attire, but also to dances and
ceremonies. Two woolen dresses and one cotton of this type can be seen in
the same McFatridge photo, taken at a dance on the Rosebud Reservation
The dress is simple but ingeniously
constructed. There are only 5 or 6 main pieces, depending on whether or not
there is a shoulder seam in the body of the garment. The main part of the
dress is two rectangles of cloth, usually made from the full width of the
cloth, selvage to selvage. The sleeves are also simple rectangular pieces of
the cloth, and gussets or side-inserts are elongated isosceles triangles.
With these straight-sided shapes, a minimum of cloth is wasted. The dress
pictured is an old trade-cloth dress owned by my husband and me, and the
selveges of the fabric are indicated in the drawings. The dress is long, to
the ankles even when belted.
I’ve been thinking about this traditional
method of cutting and construction of the Sioux dress, and I believe that
the gussets were added probably to increase freedom of movement and perhaps
to approximate the shape of the antecedent hide dress. The sleeves, are open
at the bottom because the “sleeves” of the old hide dresses also were unsewn
there -- and it’s easy to fold the sleeves back and out of the way for messy
jobs, or to feed a baby via the large sleeve-opening.
The dark blue, white-edged stroud was the
woolen cloth used in making such a dress, and the darker solids and calicos
were cotton fabrics used. A woolen dress like this can later be decorated
with cowrie shells, dentalia, bone elk teeth- depending upon the owner's s
financial situation - to make it into a truly “full-dress” costume.
- Leggings, beaded in the traditional style.
- Moccasins, with added ankle flaps.
- Belt, tack-studded, concho or plain.
- Shawl or blanket, worn over the shoulders in the usual way for
dancing; wrapped about the body in other ways when not dancing. (The
long-fringed, lightweight shawl is a modern replacement.)
- Necklaces, braid ornaments, earrings, lowanpi plume (for the eligible
only) bracelets (quilled, beaded or metal.)
MODERN POW-WOW DRESS
This dress style is contemporary and can be
seen in North and South Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan -- and probably in
Alberta and Wyoming too, although I’ve not yet attended dances in those
areas, I call it a “semi-formal” dress because a traditionally styled dress,
such as a Sioux dentalium dress or a Crow elk tooth dress, is considered to
be “formal” attire, and ordinary store-bought dress is “informal” garb at a
pow-wow —- so this especially made dress occupies a middle position in
relation to the others. For example, at south Dakota Sioux pow-wows in the
summer, when there are dance contests, contestants in the “Traditional” or
“old-style” category for women wear old or new skin dresses or trade-cloth
dresses, appropriately ornamented. Women dancers entering the “Shawl Dance”
or “Women’s Fancy Dance” competitions often wear this “Semi-formal” pow-wow
dress. Of course, non-contestants will be seen wearing both of these types
of dresses, too.
Taffeta, satin, sateen, brocade, etc. can be used to make a pow-wow dress
(shiny fabrics have lately been fashionable) both prints and solid patterns,
and all bright colors have been observed. (No very dark or very pale colors
have been seen recently.) The dresses are long — sleeved, collarless, with
straight (as opposed to gored or pleated) skirts and an opening at the back
of the neck.
street-length with the girls and younger women generally wearing them with
shorter hemlines than the older dancers. No mini-skirts, please! The dress
is a sort of “Pan—Indian” Northern Plains trait, but the accessories and
their decoration are usually in an identifiable tribal art style. But
there’s lots of selling and trading and gift-giving going on, too. So you
may see a Sioux woman wearing Crow-made boot-moccasins, or a Santee Sioux
woman wearing a Cree-made belt, due to these types of intertribal
- A Shawl, with long fringes, usually worn, not carried over the arm (as
is usual with a wearer of a
Southern Plains taffeta dress.) Beaded braid wraps or ties; beaded hair
clips; long ‘hair strings” are typically Sioux.
- A beaded headband; the princess crown is seldom seen, though gaining
- Necklace (often of the type with a beaded rosette), earrings (usually
- Beaded belt. (Crow women wear attractive belt and back-loop- pouch
- Moccasins, Boot-mocs or high-tops have crowded out traditional
footwear in several areas. I’ve never seen old-time Crow mocs worn, and
even the old-time Sioux mocs are giving way to
the popular boot mocs.
Supplies & Resources for Making
Pattern, Child's Cloth Dress
Pattern, Plains Indian Cloth Dress
Pattern, Tradecloth Dress
Pattern, Indian Women's Accessories
3-Band Wool Broadcloth
Rainbow Selvedge Wool Broadcloth
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