This piece is another in a short series of posts on period clothing, this one focuses on the clothing of the Cherokee nation from the middle of the 18th century. Spelling and punctuation has not been changed from the original. Part two of this article will discuss Cherokee attire in the 19th century.
Cherokee women’s wrap skirts were documented by Adair and would have been worn with a trade shirt (white or checked), chemise, bedgown or other jacket. The wrap skirts were most often red or blue. Ball and cone silver earrings and trade beads with center seam moccasins round out the dress.
“The women, since the time we first traded with them, wrap a fathom of the half breadth of Stroud Cloth* round their waist and tie it with a leathern belt, which is commenly covered with brass runners or buckles: but this sort of loose petticoat, reaches only to their hams, in order to shew their exquisitely fine proportioned limbs.” – Adair.
Swanton also described what was probably a wrap skirt: “The women wore a short skirt extended from the waist almost to the knees.”
“the women wearing a deer skinne verye excellentlye dressed, hanging down from their navel unto the mid thighs, which also covereth their hynder parts”. (Hariot)
Again, we refer to Adair: “The women’s dress consists only in a broad softened skin, or several small skins sewed together, which they wrap & tye round their waist, reaching a little below their knees”.
“The patterns of clothing were simple, the women wearing short skirts and shoulder mantles, and the men, breech clouts and sleeveless shirts. Both sexes wore moccasins that were made like short boots and reached halfway up the leg. While they were on hunting trips in the forest and in cold weather, men wore leather leggings like loose trouser legs.” (Lewis & Kneberg)
“They have now learned to sew, and the men as well as women, excepting shirts, make all their own cloths; the women, likewise make very pretty belts, and collars of beads and wampum, also belts and garters of worsted.” (1761), (Timberlake)
“Most of the garments … were made of the skins of animals, though some were woven from threads of vegetable and animal origin, some were of feathers… Deer hide was a major basis for clothing of all kinds and deer sinew was utilized as thread throughout the entire Southeast…. Bison robes are noted particularly among the Caddo, the Cherokee, and the Natchez..”. (Swanton)
In 1797, Louis Philippe wrote of his visit to the Cherokees: “Cherokee clothing is made with European cloth and goods. The rich among them wear ample dressing gowns in bright prints or similar cloth. Some wear hats, but the majority keep the native haircut…. Their clothing is so varied that an exact description is impossible. Most wear a woolen blanket over the left shoulder and beneath the right, so as to leave the right arm entirely free. They all wear a shirt or tunic which is, I am told, washed fairly often. They bathe fairly often. Trousers, breeches, or underpants are unknown to them. They have only the little square of cloth, and the shirt or tunic is belted in and hides it altogether”.
“Some are turned out with notable elegance, and I saw one among many…. whose outfit consisted of silk fichus and a light green cape or length of cloth, which hung with classic elegance and charm.” (Louis Philippe)
The following is the full description from William Bartram’s travels:
“The youth of both sexes are fond of decorating themselves with external ornaments. The men shave their head, leaving only a narrow crest or comb, beginning at the crown of the head, where it is about two inches broad and about the same height, and stands frizzed upright, but this crest tending backwards, gradually widens, covering the hinder part of the head and back of the neck: the lank hair behind is ornamented with pendant silver quills, and then jointed or articulated silver plates; and usually the middle fafcicle of hair, being by far the longest, is wrapped in a large quill of silver, or the joint of a small reed, curiously sculptured and painted, the hair continuing through it terminates in a tail or tassel.
Their ears are lacerated, separating the border or cartilaginous limb, which at first is bound round very close and tight with leather strings or thongs, and anointed with fresh bear’s oil, until healed: a piece of lead being fastened to it, by its weight extends this cartilage an incredible length, which afterwards being craped, or bound round in brass or silver wire, extends semicircularly like a bow or crescent; and it is then very elastic, even so as to spring and bound about with the least motion or flexure of the body: this is decorated with soft white plumes of heron feathers.
A very curious diadem or band, about four inches broad, and ingeniously wrought or woven, and curiously decorated with stones, beads, wampum, porcupine quills, &c., encircles their temples; the front peak of it being embellished with a high waving plume, of crane or heron feathers.
The clothing of their body is very simple and frugal. Sometimes a ruffled shirt of fine linen, next the skin, and a flap, which covers their lower parts; this garment somewhat resembles the ancient Roman breeches, or the kilt of the Highlanders; it usually consists of a piece of blue cloth, about eighteen inches wide; this they pass between their thighs, and both ends being taken up and drawn through a belt round their waist, the ends fall down, one before, and the other behind, not quite to the knee; this flap is usually plaited and indented at the ends, and ornamented with beads, tinsel lace, &c.
The leg is furnished with cloth boots; they reach from the ancle to the calf, and are ornamented with lace, beads, silver bells, &c.
The stillepica or moccasin defends and adorns the feet; it seems to be an imitation of the ancient buskin or sandal, very ingeniously made of deer skins, dressed very soft, and curiously ornamented according to fancy.
Beside this attire, they have a large mantle of the finest cloth they are able to purchase, always either of a scarlet or blue colour; this mantle is fancifully decorated with rich lace or fringe round the border, and often with little round silver or brass bells. Some have a short cloak, just large enough to cover the shoulders and breast; this is most ingeniously constructed, of feathers, woven or placed in a natural imbricated manner, usually of the scarlet feathers of the flamingo, or others of the gayest colour.
They have large silver crescents, or gorgets, which being suspended by a ribband round the neck, lie upon the breast; and the arms are ornamented with silver bands, or bracelets, and silver and gold chains, &c. a collar invests the neck.
The head, neck, and breast, are painted with vermillion, and some of the warriors have the skin of the breast and muscular parts of the body, very curiously inscribed or adorned with hieroglyphick scrolls, flowers, figures of animals, stars, crescents, and the sun in the centre of the breast. This painting of the flesh, I understand, is performed in their youth, by pricking the skin with a needle, until the blood starts, and rubbing in a blueish tinct, which is as permanent as their life. The shirt hangs loose about the waist, like a frock, or split down before, resembling a gown, and is sometimes wrapped close, and the waist encircled by a curious belt or sash.
The dress of the females is somewhat different from that of the men; their flap or petticoat is made after a different manner, is larger and longer reaching almost to the middle of the leg, and is put on differently; they have no shirt or shift, but a little short waistcoat, usually made of calico, printed linen, or fine cloth, decorated with lace, beads, &c. They never wear boots or stockings, but their buskins reach to the middle of the leg. They never cut their hair, but plait it in wreaths, which are turned up, and fastened on the crown, with a silver broach, forming a wreathed top-knot, decorated with an incredible quantity of silk ribbands, of various colours, which stream down on every side, almost to the ground. They never paint, except those of a particular class, when disposed to grant certain favours to the other sex.
But these decorations are only to be considered as indulgencies on particular occasions, and the privilege of youth; as at weddings, festivals, dances, &c., or when the men assemble to act the war farce, on the evening immediately preceding their march on a hostile expedition: for usually they are almost naked, contenting themselves with the flap and sometimes a shirt, boots and moccasins. The mantle is seldom worn by the men, except at night, in the winter season, when extremely cold; and by the women at dances, when it serves the purpose of a veil; and the females always wear the jacket, flap, and buskin, even children as soon or before they can walk; whereas the male youth go perfectly naked until they are twelve or fifteen years of age.
The junior priests or students constantly wear the mantle or robe, which is white; and they have a great owl skin cased and stuffed very ingeniously, so well, executed, as almost to represent the living bird, having large sparkling glass beads, or buttons, fixed in the head for eyes: this ensign of wisdom and divination, they wear sometimes as a crest on the top of the head, at other times the image sits on the arm, or is borne on the hand. These bachelors are also distinguishable from the other people, by their taciturnity, grave and solemn countenance, dignified step, and singing to themselves songs or hymns, in a low sweet voice, as they stroll about the towns. “ – Bartram, William. Travels Through North and South Carolina: Georgia East and West Florida. 1792. London.