Clothing Styles of the Primitive Choctaw
by Lucas Graywolf
By the year 1833, the Choctaw Indians of Mississippi were already on their way to adopting the styles of the European settler who had begun arriving in their villages in great numbers. Trade cloth, a bulky, loose-knit material dyed in bright colors, was brought into the Choctaw villages by both the French and British, as were the pipe-tomahawks that were to become a symbol of the tribe.
Like the women of other tribes, Choctaw women took long lengths of the material, full bolt width, and simply folded it in half, cutting a hole for the head to pass through. In order to assure fullness in the dress, full-length gussets were sewn into each side. The dress was then ornamented according to the desires of the women, but usually following some traditional customs. These might include seashells, fringe, feathers or even beads. As European glass beads became more available, the Choctaw women stopped making them from berries, seeds, and rocks.
It was during this same time period that many of the Choctaws, including the men, began to adopt some of the clothing styles of the Cherokee and Seminoles who came to trade in Choctaw villages.
In 1847, French artist Alfred Boisseau painted a picture titled, “Choctaw Indians Walking by the Bayou in Louisiana.” In that Picture the Choctaw man is shown wearing only a very long shirt, made of brightly colored print material, a blanket, leg wrappings and moccasins. This print shirt (slipping off one shoulder) is common to those worn by the Seminoles of Florida during the same time period. The two women are only depicted with large blankets wrapped around their bodies and a small child seems to be wearing an oversized plain shirt with the sleeves rolled up and covered with a poncho made of blanket material.
In 1834, Artist George Catlin painted two portraits that are well known to anyone who reads any material on Choctaw History. They depict two of our greatest leaders, Chief Moshulatubbee and Chief Peter Pitchlynn. This was to be the last time any of our leaders was to be pictured in anything resembling “Indian” clothing.
In both paintings these men are wearing different versions of French hunting coats. Pitchlynn’s is certainly in the more classical frontier version of this coat worn by French explorers of the period, although his is made of cloth rather than the hide coats sometimes worn by the French in America.
Both men are wearing feathers in their hair, necklaces, and pullover trade cloth shirts with exceptionally wide collars. While Pitchlynn is portrayed empty handed, Moshulatubbee is seen with a medicine or “peace” pipe and a beautiful feather fan.
It is worthy of note that Moshulatubbee wears a simple waist tie; much like a cumber bund but Pitchlynn is wearing an embroidered stole across one shoulder and tied on the side, much like Deacons of some churches. It was a large version of the chest ties or ornamentations worn by Choctaw men and called Baldrics. These were often narrow strips of colored material (usually red) and decorated with flowered embroidery or beadwork. They were worn crossed at the chest and tied on each side.
By 1850, Choctaw men and women had fully adopted the European style of clothing. Several authors have described meeting Pitchlynn at meetings or social events. A most gracious and charming man, finely dressed and well mannered. He lived in European style housing, often hosting large social gatherings. One must assume he wore the clothing of commerce and white mans politics. Gideon Linceum, a noted businessman who maintained close ties with the Choctaw people, reported keeping regular company with Moshulatubbee, whom he described in like manner.
It was the adoption of the frontier style “granny” dress that was to become the “traditional” Choctaw women’s garb.
Although we have continued to adopt each new clothing style that shows up our women have clung to the red cloth dress in frontier style as the native Choctaw dress. With its sometimes lace fringed white yoke and the traditional crown, and topped with our ladies “crown” it is prominent at any of our tribal activities.
As an aside, in my last article, I described two dancers depicted in the Ishtaboli game standing by the goal posts and beating drums. I referred to them as some sort of “cheerleaders.” After that article appeared in the Bishinik, I received two telephone calls from men who described themselves as Choctaw Apolumas (spirit or “medicine” men). They both informed me that the men with the drums in the pictures were Apolumas calling spirits to help their team win the game. I do not have a listed telephone number and I have never met either of these men before. My address did not appear in the story, nor was there anything to indicate that I lived in Texas. It was not until after I hung up from the last call that I thought to ask how they found me. Perhaps I don’t want to know.
The Choctaw clothes in early days in Mississippi were whatever was available within their region. The early clothes consisted of a blouse and short skirt made of animal hide for the woman. Deer brains were used in tanning the hides. The men wore breechcloth and moccasin. When traveling, they wore pants and shirt. In the winter, they wore outer garments of animal hide and furs with the lower ends of leggings tucked into the moccasin. They wore moccasins when traveling, but often went barefoot at home.
Later, the women invariably wore a blouse and skirt made of cotton material. In the winter, the body was protected by a shawl. They wore moccasins similar to those worn by man and went barefoot at home. For ornament, they wore wooden beads. Both men and women wore their hair long and plaited or flowing loosely.
The clothes worn after the arrival to their new homeland were similar to those worn by the white settlers. The dress style changed among the women of the white settlers, but the Choctaw women continue to wear the loosely fitted dress with the hemline just above the ankle. She wore an apron and kerchief on her head and went barefoot at home.
During the 1930’s the women began to adopt the dress style of that era and ready-made dresses were available for purchase. Today the Choctaw women have accepted and keep abreast of current fashion and no longer are they “set apart by the clothes they wear”.
The clothes for ceremonial activities were colorful and carefully sewn by hand. The origin and date of adoption of this distinctive dress is not certain but is similar to the traditional peasant dress in France Brittany’s Province of early 1800’s. The handmade dress has a full sleeve and flowing skirt with ruffles requiring up to six yards of colorful cotton material. The Choctaw dress of today is usually of solid color yellow, red, blue or green with contrasting color. The decoration symbolizes the mountain and valleys with a path or trail beside them. The circle and cross symbolizes the sun and the stars.
A decorative white apron with contrasting trim and ruffles is an integral part of the Choctaw woman’s dress. It is decorative as well as functional. The marital status of the woman determines the opening of the dress. The unmarried woman’s dress is opened in the back, while the married women’s dress is opened at the front for accessibility to nourishment for infants.
Ornaments worn with the dress for special occasions include a beaded decorative comb on the crown of the head. Other beaded decorations include earrings, medallion, collar necklace in a diamond lace design, and shoulder necklace. Multi-color of ribbons are normally worn at the back as decorations while performing “Choctaw social dance”. A white handkerchief is worn at the neckline and moccasins complete the ensemble look.
The man’s shirt is made from cotton material and the decoration is similar to those sewn on the woman’s dress. The colorful shirt is worn with a ribboned felt hat.
Ornaments worn with the shirt include beaded belt with multicolor of ribbon worn from the waist on one side only, a beaded tie and sash featuring design native to the Choctaws.
Moccasins complete the ensemble look for the man.
Sew a Choctaw Dress
Fabric: Cotton, Cotton/Polyester blend; Notions: 22” zipper, thread Yardage: Average adult, five yards; larger size, six yards Apron and decorative trim, 1 and ¾ yards, all of 44”materal. Seam allowance ¼ to 3/8 inch. Use scissors for yoke, midriff and sleeve to make sure the dress fits.
- Cut yoke, front and back, cut two of each.
- Cut lower bodice or midriff, front and back. Cut two the same size.
- Sleeve-length to waist. Tear: two cuffs, large enough to slip over hand; two waistbands, to go around your waist loosely plus two inches; Skirt: two panels with length desired from mid-calf to floor; Strips for ruffles for hem, skirt and yoke: Tear strips allowing for slight fullness, approximately 1 ½ times the width of hem; strips for two panels of 44inche material: hem ruffles 4inches x 132inches. Cut bias strip 2 inches wide for neck, length depends on size of neckline; Strips for decorative trimmings ¾ for triangle trim and ½ inch wide for narrow strips above trim. Cut strips with scissors. The strips are 132 inches long.
Yoke is lined. Waistband is lined also. Trimmings should be of contrasting material. Trimmings on yoke, two rows; cuffs, one row; hem ruffles, one row; skirt, two rows.
Wash dress by hand or on gentle cycle in washer. Dry on low heat or in shaded area so it won’t fade. Do not store dress and moccasins together.
- Sew together shoulder, front and back of yoke. Same with lining.
- Basting stitch on top and bottom of midriff for both back and front. Gather and fit onto yoke of back and front, sew through all materials. Optional, you may slip stitch lining. Hand baste sleeve opening of yoke lining.
- It is now ready for decorative trim. When the trim is completed, sew yoke ruffles on. Sew strip of trimming on ruffles at gathering line. Complete before going to next step.
- Fit bias strip of material onto neckline, sew.
- Gather sleeve to fit cuff, stitch. Sew trim on cuff, complete.
- Sew sleeve onto bodice (yoke and midriff), make gathering at top of sleeve, to fit yoke and midriff. Fold cuff and slip stitch.
- Fit gathered midriff onto waistband and lining, baste, adjust if needed sew. Set aside.
- Sew two panels for skirt together. Prepare opening in front or back sufficient to sew zipper in when dress is completed. Baste stitch top of skirt.
- Sew together 3 strips for bottom ruffles. Make narrow hem. Sew trimming near hemline. Put basting stitch on top of ruffles but don’t gather it until the trimming is completed. When completed, gather ruffles and sew onto bottom of skirt. Press.
- Sew trimming just above stitching line of skirt through all materials.
- Sew 3 strips of ruffles on skirt. Make narrow hem. Baste stitch on top. No trimmings. Gather, and sew on skirt above trimmings. Sew strip of trimmings on gathering line. Complete trimmings.
- At this point, the dress should be complete except for the zipper. Sew zipper.
- Use the same instructions for apron as dress.
Choctaws Quick to Accept Progressive Clothing
By Lucas Graywolf
The Choctaw people are very proud of their status as “civilized” Indians. We have been a pragmatic people, quick to accept whatever was good from the people who entered our lives. There is a saying that if the European settlers had brought aluminum foil with them the Choctaws would have been cooking with it while the other tribes were still regarding it with suspicion. But too often, in the rush for progress, we lose a sense of our history, our roots. It becomes hard for us to remember who and what we were before the white man came with his fine clothes, fancy homes and furniture. Perhaps this is nowhere more noticeable than at our annual tribal gathering. We are hosts to people from many other tribes. They wear modern clothing throughout the day, but when they dance for us they wear the clothing worn by their ancestors many winters before the civilizing influences took hold of their lives. We’re not often seen wearing such garments even though it is a part of our heritage.
What did the Choctaw of the 1700’s or early 1800’s wear: to learn that we have to turn to the documents and paintings of the Europeans who first came into contact with our people.
We know from one of our verbal histories (Anthropologists and historians mockingly call them “myths and legends”) that our people first lived a great distance to the West and that under the leadership of Chahtah and Chicsa we came to the East, following the direction a sacred pole or cane leaned each day until it finally remained upright in the region we now know as Mississippi. In his book Chahta Hapia Hoke, author Charles Worsham quotes a tribal story that says, “…our people lived in the northwest. In time their population became so large that it was difficult to exist there.” It may be shoka anompa but it is a story told too often to doubt. We leave it to the Holytopa Hattak to discuss the wisdom of the Nanih Waiya stories of creation. The Choctaw people once lived with the plains or mountain tribes and many of our old customs and the clothing we wore were almost indistinguishable from theirs.
When Philadelphia artist George Catlin first encountered the Choctaws, he found them a happy and cheerful people, industrious and honest. In two of his most famous paintings of our tribe (pre-game and Istaboli contest) he shows warriors on the sidelines dressed in the buckskin leggings similar to those worn by the plains tribes. Instead of a loincloth, which hung across the belt in the front and back, the Choctaws seemed to be wearing ones that simply tucked into the top of the belt, much like bulky “fruit of the looms” as it were. At least one seemed to have long hair hanging from his belt in different places. Others wore clothes that had special markings or decorations. Their hair was uniformly black and long, not braided in pigtails in the plains fashion but simply hanging loose. Yet in another painting depicting an individual Ishtaboli player, Catlin shows the man with comparatively short hair. A great number of the men are shown with spears or lances and decorated rawhide shields.
Women in Catlin’s pictures are shown wearing mid-calf length buckskin dresses, with sculpted bottoms. These dresses, known as “two-hide” dresses, are very similar to those worn by the Blackfoot, Sioux, and Missouri Indians although the former might be longer than those painted by Catlin. The bottoms, arms and yokes are all fringed and some seem to be decorated with strands of material, beads or hair. A few of these are painted with decorations, pictures or stripes. At least one has a turtle painted on the back. Like the men, the women all are wearing their hair unplaited and there seems to be no ornamentation. A curious note must be made of the women painted by the artist at the far side of the ball field. There he seems to depict dresses in various colors including blue, yellow and pink or red. While the details are not clear, it is possible he saw some women in what came to be known as “trade-cloth” dresses, made from wool Stroud cloth. This material was made similar to hide dresses but had a gusset to make the dress a proper width. They most often were made of red or blue material.
Footwear is more confusing in these paintings. Most men are pictured without any foot coverings at all. The women, on the other hand, are all pictured in moccasins. These appear to be covered with short leggings, or are above the calf moccasins and the tops may have fallen to cause a wrinkled look.
At each end of the ball fields, Catlin shows drummers who appear to be cheerleaders of some sort. They are carrying small hand drums roughly 12 inches in diameter and decorated with small designs. Their drum sticks are simply long pieces of wood that have been curled by some means on the end into little hoops which are then pounded against the skins of the drum.