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Lakota Society

Lakota Clothing


This beautiful dress was created by KQ Designs specialists in unique custom-designed beaded items, Native American Beadwork, Powwow Regalia, and Southwest Jewelry.

Native Americans took the task of making clothing more seriously than European settlers. They used primarily animal hides, which they had to hunt, skin and work the hide to the proper softness before it could be made into a shirt, pants, or warm winter coat.

In the Lakota culture, where a girl or woman might wear the same dress for years, dresses were designed and decorated not only to be aesthetically pleasing but also to give specific information about the wearer.

Certain symbols on a dress referred to the woman's tribe, her marital status, and, for example, the prowess of her husband or father as a hunter or trader. Since elk have at most two eyeteeth, a dress adorned with dozens or even hundreds of elk eyeteeth signaled that the men in the family were skilled hunters.

Some of the oldest dresses, those dating from the early 1800s, were made from a single animal hide that was folded in half. The two edges were then sewn to create a straight tube dress. Practical as they were, the straight, relatively narrow dresses made movement difficult for women in nomadic tribes. They then began making two-hide dresses.

The hides came from elk, deer and big horn sheep and were constructed by sewing two together along the edges of the hides with the tail end of the animal at the top of dress. Designers of hide dresses left the tail of the animal intact, and the tail became a highly desirable embellishment at the wearer's neckline. Later in the century, it became fashionable to remove the tail from the hide and to replace it with intricate beadwork at the neckline. Two-hide dresses eventually evolved into three-hide dresses, in which a third hide was folded like a short cape over the A-line, two-hide garment.

The dresses were utilitarian. They were warm, tough and relatively weather-hardy. But to create style, both tribal and personal, the women used porcupine quills, bits of tin, carved bone, animal sinew, coins, animal teeth, fossilized shells, and the brightly colored glass beads that traders brought from the glass factories of Venice or what is now the Czech Republic. Thousands of hours went into the embellishment on many of these dresses, and by the late 1800s, the entire yoke of a woman's dress was sometimes covered with beads.

By the mid-nineteenth century, dresses made of what was often called "Indian" or "Trade" cloth were common. Mills in England wove wool specifically for trading with Native Americans. The wool was usually vivid scarlet or dark blue and the undyed selvage at the edges of the cloth was ingeniously incorporated into the design of the dresses. By the late nineteenth century, Native women often added rows of ribbon, shells or beads above the undyed selvages to add another design element.

To make your own northern plains buckskin or cloth dress, I have provided a page with designs and instructions.

Women also wore short decorated buckskin leggings, extending from the ankle to the knee and supported by garters, and moccasins with their dresses.

To make your own northern plains buckskin or cloth leggings, I have provided a page with designs and instructions.

Today, these dresses are still being created with pride, joy and consummate artistry.

Of special note are the Ghost Dance dresses dating from the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Native culture was increasingly under pressure to assimilate into the European-based culture of the 100 year old United States. The dresses are made of muslin and painted with battle scenes meant to honor warriors. It is most likely that men did the painting. The scenes are dramatic and heroic, though the dresses themselves are by necessity much simpler garments than those decorated with beads and other adornment. Because Ghost Dances were associated with the massacre of Lakota people at Wounded Knee, elders rarely allow the dresses to be exhibited.


The men of the Lakota were not elaborately clothed. At home, they usually went about in breech-cloth and moccasins. The former was a broad strip of cloth drawn up between the legs and passed under the belt both behind and before. There is some reason for believing that even this was introduced by white traders, the more primitive form being a small apron of dressed skin. At all seasons a man kept at hand a soft tanned buffalo robe in which he tastefully swathed his person when appearing in public.

There were no differences between the robes of men and women except in their decorations. The buffalo robes were usually the entire skins with the tail. Among most tribes, this robe was worn horizontally with the tail on the right hand side. Light, durable, and gaily colored blankets were later introduced by traders and are even now in general use.

The Lakota men wore hip-high leggings tied at the belt and moccasins during the hot summer months. In the winter months, the men wore long buckskin leggings and a knee-length deer buckskin shirt. Both men and women also wore thick buffalo robes in winter and fur-lined moccasins. Mittens and gloves seem to have been introduced by the whites, though they appear to have been native in other parts of the continent.

To make your own northern plains buckskin or cloth leggings, I have provided a page with designs and instructions.

The so-called war, or scalp shirts, should not be taken as a regular dress. Though in quite recent years it has become a kind of tuxedo, it was formerly the more or less exclusive uniform of important functionaries. On the other hand, the shirt itself, stripped of its ornaments and accessories seems to be of the precise pattern once worn in daily routine. The shirts for men are also made of two deerskins on a slightly different pattern, but one in which the natural contour of the skin is the determining factor. Yet, the indications are that as regular dress, the shirt was by no means in general use. Thus, the common shirt was after all not typical of the Lakota: it is only recently that the special decorated form so characteristic of the Lakota has come into general use.

Both Lakota men and women wore their hair long, cutting it only when they were in mourning a very close loved one. The manner of dressing the hair is often a conspicuous conventional feature. There were many different traditional Lakota hairstyles, but long braids were the most common. Men often wrapped their braids in fur or tied quillwork strips around them. Early writers report a general practice of artificially lengthening mens hair by gumming on extra strands until it sometimes dragged on the ground. There is a tradition among the Oglala that they also shaved the sides of the head. (See also History of the Expedition of Lewis and Clark, Reprinted, New York, 1902, Vol. 1, p. 135.) The hair of Lakota women was usually worn in the two-braid fashion with the median part from the forehead to the neck. Braids braided starting high on the back of the head and hanging on the back meant she was single and depending on her age available for courtship. Braids braided low, starting behind the ears and hanging in the front meant she was unavailable. No braids and hair hanging free meant that she was in mourning. Old women frequently allowed the hair to hang down at the sides or confined it by a simple headband. The love of long heavy tresses was a typical trait of the Lakota. The long hair for the Lakota represents the strength of their spirit. They believe the longer the hair, the stronger the spirit. Only certain people are only allowed to touch one's hair. When a Lakota cuts their hair, traditionally is was only for mourning the loss of a very close loved one. When a Lakota does cut their hair, they have to dispose of their hair in a ceremonious way; in the Lakota tribe, they put their hair that was cut off in a river, creek, stream, etc.. Since they are a part of the earth, they always put themselves back into the earth.

Instead of combs, brushes made from the tails of porcupines were used in dressing the hair. The most common form was made by stretching the porcupine tail over a stick of wood. The hair of the face and others parts of the body was pulled out by small tweezers.

For the head there was no special covering. The head was bare, but the eyes were sometimes protected by simple shades of rawhide. faces often greased and painted. So, in general, both sexes in the Plains went bare-headed, though the robe was often pulled up forming a kind of temporary hood.

By the public every Indian is expected to have his hair thickly decked with feathers. The striking feather bonnets with long tails usually seen in pictures were exceptional and formerly permitted only to a few distinguished men. They are most characteristic of the Lakota. Even a common eagle feather in the hair of a Lakota had some military significance according to its form and position. Objects placed in the hair of men usually had more than a mere aesthetic significance.

Beads for the neck, ear ornaments, necklaces of claws, scarfs of otter and other fur, etc., were in general use. The face and exposed parts of the body were usually painted and sometimes the hair also. Women were fond of tracing the part line with vermilion. There was little tattooing and noses were seldom pierced. The ears, on the other hand, were usually perforated and adorned with pendants which among Lakota women were often long strings of shells reaching the waist line.


A moccasin is a shoe, made of deerskin or other soft leather, consisting of a sole and sides made of one piece of leather, stitched together at the top, and sometimes with a vamp (additional panel of leather). The sole is soft and flexible and the upper part often is adorned with embroidery or beading. Though sometimes worn inside, it is chiefly intended for outdoor use, as in exploring wildernesses and running. Historically, it is the footwear of many Indigenous peoples of North America; moreover, hunters, traders, and European settlers wore them. Etymologically, the moccasin derives from the Algonquian language Powhatan word makasin (cognate to Massachusett mohkisson / mokussin, Ojibwa makizin, Mi'kmaq mksin), and from the Proto-Algonquian word *maxkeseni (shoe).

See Plains Hard Sole Moccasins for complete instructions to make your own pair of moccasins.

Native American moccasins were designed for their specific environment. Hard-sole moccasins, usually made from two or more pieces of hide, are often associated with the western plains and deserts areas. The hard sole of shaped rawhide and fitted leather upper required more tailoring than other moccasin varieties. Hard-soled moccasins were important to protect feet from harsh cactus or prairie-grass covered ground, and sharp rocks not worn down by water. The turned up toe of many two-piece moccasins (like that of the Apache) prevented sharp objects from running into the seams and injuring the foot. Soft-soled moccasins, often constructed from a single piece of leather were common in the Eastern Forests and were made by bringing up the sole of the shoe around the foot and puckering or patching the material around the instep. Soft-soled center seam and pucker-toe moccasins were well suited to travel through woodlands with leaf and pine-needle covered ground. Some soft-soled moccasins from the Plains and Northwest Coast were made from one piece but they were sewed along one the side of the foot rather than the center.

The most basic form of soft-sole moccasin was the simple center seam made from a single piece of tanned leather. The leather sides were brought up from the bottom and around the sides of the foot sewn in a central seam starting with a puckered stitch at the toe and running along the upper instep. Variations of soft-sole moccasin construction include a u-shaped piece of leather, added as a vamp, while another piece was added to the back of the moccasin to serve as a cuff. Some of the Great Lakes and Iroquois tribes used a wide vamp, added in a gathered fashion to cover most of the upper front of the moccasin. Other Eastern Forest tribes made moccasins with a shorter or narrower vamp that sometimes joined a central puckered seam running down the upper front to the toe.

Moccasins were made with all types of variations and additions according to the styles of different tribes. So distinctive are some moccasin styles that one could tell the tribe of the wearer by his footprints. Flaps of leather or fur were often added to cover the ankle, or folded down as a cuff. Some moccasins were made into a boot simply by attaching them to the leggings. Various sized u-shaped or elliptical pieces of leather, called vamps or insets, were added to the moccasin upper at the instep. A tongue for hard and soft-soled moccasins was often added and cut into various forms and decorated. Many methods were used to pucker the toes of woodland center-seam moccasins. A distinctive 'rabbit nose' or 'partridge' moccasins could be sewed by trimming the pattern first into a 'w' shape. There were also many ways to finish the heels of moccasins. Varieties of Eastern Woodland moccasins often left a tiny tab, or tail, trimmed to different shapes, that dragged behind. Other one-piece moccasins have no tail, or the tab is sewn up to the heel for added reinforcement. Some moccasins of the plains and prairie had fringe hanging at the heel seam or added onto the instep; as fringe trailed behind the walker, it may have helped to obliterate footprints.

Moccasins were usually made from the soft tanned hides of deer, moose, elk or buffalo. Rawhide was used for the hard-soled moccasins. Hides from the larger animals were much thicker than buckskin. Thicker hides were more difficult to sew, but produced sturdier, longer lasting moccasins. Sewing is easier with soft Indian-tanned (or brain-tanned) leather, but commercially sueded and split leather is also suitable for moccasin making. Commercial leather is most like brain tanned leather when it is split (sueded on both sides), as the smooth outside of the hide has been split off. The thickness of commercial leather is measured by the weight in ounces of a square foot of leather. Very thin garment leathers, 1-2 oz. weight, is usually too thin for practical moccasins, while heavy leathers, 5-6 oz. weight, can be nearly impossible to sew by hand. Medium thickness leather (3-4 oz. weight) is recommended for most soft-soled moccasins. Patterns should be laid out on the hide so the pieces go with the grain of the leather, so the moccasins will be uniform. If conservation of leather is a consideration, pieces can be laid out so leather is not wasted, but as the leather stretches in different directions, sewing can become a little irregular.

Moccasins were assembled inside out to hide the stitching in the finished shoe. Stitching would be done traditionally with sinew through holes punched with an bone awl. For comfort, knots were kept on the outside of a shoe. The whip stitch was commonly used in moccasins, often with an added narrow welt running the length of the seam to make the moccasin stronger and to help hide the stitching when turned right side out. The running stitch was also used in places where the whip stitch was not as practical, as with added fringe. Seams were often gently pounded flat in puckered areas.

Even though moccasin construction techniques are similar among many tribes, the beaded or quilled decorations were often quite distinctive. Woodland moccasins were often decorated, usually in floral or zoomorphic designs, on the instep or tongue portion, woodland decorationdid not usually cover the sides of the moccasin. The flap or added cuff around the ankle was also often decorated, or worn upright and held in place by thongs wrapped around the ankle. A separate beaded or quilled piece of velvet or leather was sometimes sewn on top of the cuff or tongue portion. These decorated panels could be easily removed from the moccasins when the soles wore out, and sewn onto a new pair. Plains moccasins often left the cuff undecorated, but geometric bead and quillwork patterns often decorated the instep portion, or around the circumference near the sole. Some Plains designs covered the entire top of the moccasin from the heel to the toe. Moccasins worn for marraige were often completely covered in beads. For Plains peoples preparedness in the afterlife, many moccasins worn into burial were fully beaded even on the bottom of the soles.

To make your own Plains hard sole moccasins, I have provided a page with step-by-step instructions.

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