The beautiful traditional dresses and shirts worn by Oklahoma Choctaw men and women are made of colorful cotton cloth and edged in fine ribbonwork. Garments like these have been made by Choctaw women for generations, but Choctaw clothing has not always looked like this. Today’s traditional dress is the product of a long line of development, which has incorporated a great deal of change in both fashion and materials.
Millenia before Europeans entered ancestral Choctaw lands, Choctaw women produced clothing that was both functional and beautiful. The two primary materials they used were Tvlhko (buckskin) and Nan Tvnna (cloth).
The traditional process of Choctaw hide tanning is very labor intensive. It relies on traditional knowledge and skill to produce a clothing-grade piece of buckskin. Each hide takes approximately one week to process and more than ten hours of hands-on work before it is ready to be used for garments.
Our Choctaw ancestors also produced cloth, ranging from coarse to very fine in texture. The fibers used to make it come from Yvnnvsh Hishi (buffalo wool), Bihi Hakshup (mulberry bark), Hvshtapohla (stinging nettle), Nuchi (milkweed) and dog bane. Choctaw artisans revitalizing traditional cloth gather plant fibers in fall and process them by soaking, pounding and peeling. The fibers are spun into yarn colored with vegetable dyes and twined by hand into fabric.
Historically, Choctaw men wore a Yvnnvsh Hakshup (buffalo robe), Apokshiama (buckskin breechcloth), Iyubiha (buckskin leggings) and Tvlhko Shulush (buckskin pucker-toe moccasins). They would carry a Iti Shibata (bow) and Oksi Naki Aivlhto (quiver).
Choctaw women wore an Vlhkuna (a type of wrap skirt made of buckskin or fabric) and Tvlhko Shulush (buckskin pucker-toe moccasins with long uppers). In cooler weather, or for special occasions, women augmented the Vlhkuna with a turkey feather mantle know as a Kasmo. If feathers were not available, women draped a long piece of fabric or buckskin over their upper body that wrapped around the left shoulder and tied under the right arm. During colder months, women also wore Yvnnvsh Hakshup (buffalo robes) similar to those worn by men. Iklonla Apakfopa (shell bead necklace) and Kishi (pack basket).
The origins of today’s Choctaw traditional dress in Oklahoma goes back to the 1700s. Choctaw women began obtaining cloth from French traders as European trade routes and settlements came into the Choctaw homelands. Today’s dress is the product of a long line of adaptation influenced by Euro-American styles. Choctaw women, however, put their own twist on these adaptations, working traditional designs into the ribbons or applique. Modern traditional dress is worn mostly for special occasions and dances.
Modern Choctaw regalia for men includes a cotton shirt with either a round neckline or an open collar with applique or ribbonwork. Most are bold colors with contrasting trim representing one of the traditional Choctaw motifs: full or half-diamond. The shirt is paired with black pants and shoes as well as a wide-brimmed, black felt hat. Other accessories for men include hat bands made of ribbons or beads, baldrics (a sash made of fabric with beadwork or applique), belts, handkerchiefs, beaded medallions, beaded collars and colored silk ribbons pinned at the waist.
The centerpiece of traditional dress for today’s Choctaw women is a colorful cotton dress that consists of a bodice with a fitted waist and a long, full skirt trimmed with ruffles. An apron of a contrasting color completes the outfit. This clothing is adapted from European designs of the 1700s and features applique or ribbonwork in the traditional Choctaw motifs of the full or half-diamond. The circle and cross pattern is most often seen in Mississippi but occurs in Oklahoma as well.
The forerunners of today’s dresses were separate cotton skirts and blouses with very simple, but elegant, ribbonwork. They are pictured in paintings of the 1840s through the 1870s. Other variations of the dress still exist today as either separate skirts and blouses or more simple versions of the full dress with shorter sleeves and hemlines in calico print cotton fabric. These are considered work or everyday clothes. There is no true pattern for the dress, but traditionally, all the fabric is torn by hand instead of cut to create the pieces of the dress or shirt.
Choctaw women wear a variety of accessories with their dresses. Extensive sets of beaded jewelry, hair combs, beaded belts, basket purses, handkerchiefs, sashes and colorful silk ribbons pinned to the back of the dress are only a few of the adornments seen today.
Oklahoma Choctaw traditional clothing incorporates a number of different designs, but the most common are:
Traditionally, the band of full diamonds pays homage and respect to nature. The pattern is derived from the skin of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Our Choctaw ancestors respected the rattlesnake because of its powerful venom and dominant place among other creatures.
The half-diamond design can also be associated with the diamondback rattlesnake, but it is more commonly connected to the hills and valleys of the Choctaw homelands. The bar running along the bottom is often said to represent a river or path. Half-diamonds can be seen as representing a journey, whether literal or the figurative journey of life’s highs and lows.
The pattern of “X” and “O” represent the game of stickball. The shapes relate to the Kapucha (sticks) and the Towa (ball). Together the symbols demonstrate the importance of game as part of the Choctaw cultural identity. The “X” shape represents the sticks crossed over one another in a gesture meaning “May our paths cross again.”