The most beautiful Indian dress I ever saw had been collected by a priest (maybe Father LaPoint?) in the very early days and shipped off to Europe. It was on loan to a museum along with art work. The dress was white buckskin embellished with porcupine quills. They were not dyed, but careful attention had been given to their natural black-then-white coloring so that they formed an intricate pattern across the top of the dress.
When Bob Scriver’s collection of artifacts first went to the Edmonton Provincial Museum in 1990, the objects were displayed and a catalogue of essays was prepared, as is the custom. One of the essays, by Richard Conn, was about “Blackfoot Clothing Style” and how it has evolved over the years. Much of what follows was in that article.
There is not much clothing from pre-contact days because it was worn out, used up, recycled. The earliest clothes were based on the shapes of the materials used -- deer, elk, or mountain sheep hides. (Bison hides, except for calves, would be much too heavy.) In warm climates the women wrapped one hide for a skirt -- and another hide over the shoulders if it were chilly. That one might be put aside or dropped down to hang off the belt with the skirt if necessary. No one in Montana dressed like that.
Farther north women used one hide for the front and one hide for the back, with straps over the shoulders. They were cut to be flat for ease in folding and packing. One thinks of kimonos in Asia. There might be sleeves that tied on for winter and maybe leggings. Clothes were as likely to be attached with ties as to be sewn together. Armpits were left open, like fancy athletic clothes today.
Clothes changed when horses arrived. The flat “slip dresses” weren’t suitable for riding, so the women went to a variation of the man’s long shirt. Men wore long shirts with leggings but no breech cloths until horses -- then the shirts got shorter because they didn’t have to cover bottoms. Men wore their shirts with the animal legs and tails dangling down as a fancy hem -- then they were decorated with long fringes of buckskin (in a pinch one could jerk off one sliver of fringe to tie something), fur, scalps, feathers, elk teeth, and painted designs, often a figure that looks like a polywog. No one knows what they were really supposed to be. Surely not sperm, but that’s what they look like!
Women made their shirt-like dresses with the deers’ tails at the top and flipped over to the outside under their chins and napes. If the hides weren’t quite big enough to do that, they might add a kind of yoke that lay over the shoulders and arms. When beads were available, they were used to follow the wavy edges of the shirts and the lines of the folded-over top. Later, when using heavy cloth like velvet, the same pattern was beaded -- straight stripes out the arms and a dip under the chin -- so familiar it seemed natural. Maybe bells or thimbles would be added.
For men, horseback riding meant adding a breechcloth, but the Blackft breechcloth had a sleeve in the back at the waist. The actual cloth went between the legs and then hung over the belt in the front, but in the back it ended AT the belt, which was threaded through the sleeve. A much more secure attachment for someone in a saddle. The women put a blanket on the horse, got into the saddle, then folded the blanket around their legs for warmth and modesty.
To a modern eye, the later “dress up” outfits are appealing because shirts, leggings, cuffed gloves, headdress band, and so on are all matched in the same beading pattern, but in the earlier times, one legging might be one pattern and the other one different. The white buckskin was maintained with white clay -- kaolin, the basis for china -- which is in massive deposits around here, most famously at Medicine Hat where the clay is used for porcelain. There was one time period when shirts were painted yellow all over and then painted decorations were added on top. (A yellow lodgeskin is always remarked.)
In more modern times, when women had access to cloth instead of buckskin, the dresses changed again. They had a sleeved bodice with a skirt gathered on, rather conventional except that they could be pretty big. Properly, a woman wore a wide harness-leather belt, either beaded or studded with brass tacks. I love those belts and always think I’m going to make one, but they aren’t as good if they haven’t been worn a long time. Queen Victoria had dresses in two-pieces, or really three -- a skirt and two separate tops: one for daytime and the other for dressed-up supper. (I saw one belonging to Victoria in Calgary at the Glenbow and there were still soup stains on the evening top!) Victoria’s beadwork on her evening top were all jet. Indian women learned to do their fancy beading on a separate shawl or yoke that could be fitted over a plain colored dress, maybe of stroud cloth which was a sort of coarse wool woven in Stroud, England, often bright red.
The bodice, sleeves and gathered skirt style, often gathered into a waist so high that it was nearly “Empire,” was a way of using calico for a summer dress. Such a relief to wear in warm weather instead of buckskin! The decorations might be shiny ribbons in the patterns previously traced in beads -- even with that funny little dip under the chin where the deer’s tail used to be. Of course, eventually the soft woolen shawl with long fringe was added for dancing with Pendleton blankets for me. Jewelry in the old times was never silver, but rather brass or copper -- often wire twisted into a bracelet or necklace.
For men, calico became the basis of “ribbon shirts” worn with jeans. The actual pattern for the shirt might be either plain or fancy with an inset pleated front. It was a ribbon shirt because it was decorated with sewn-on ribbons with their long tails flying loose. Even more inventive is the “jingle dress” which is covered with little cones made from the tin lids of round snoose (chewing tobacco) cans -- those things that make worn circles on the hip pockets of cowboys. A good jingle dancer makes those little cones dance and sing.
Blackfeet clothes, in any time period, are always meant to be distinctive -- not like another tribe’s clothing and yet not TOO different. Once I was chaperoning the prom at Heart Butte and wanted something suitable for a big fat lady (me) to wear that would suggest such a person could be glamorous. I already had a plain black dress so I made a black jacket with stripes of glittery colored sequins across the front and out the arms -- with that little dip under the chin. One of the girls, not suitable for pink fluff, fell in love with that jacket. “Give it to me,” she asked. I didn’t. I should have. It would have been the Blackft thing to do.