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Women's Dresses

Women's Dress
The dress above is only one
of many different styles.

The basic style of traditional dresses worn by Blackfoot women must have become popular sometime around 1800. David Thompson, a trader and explorer, wrote in the 1780's that dresses were then much like modern women's slips--a rectangular body held up with shoulder straps, to which separate sleeves were added in cooler weather. Women of neighboring tribes wore similar dresses, though no Blackfoot examples exist in museum collections today.

The style of dress which is still worn by some women on special occasions today, has a cape sewn to the main piece so that the complete dress covers the whole body, including the shoulders and upper arms. At least two large Deer hides are required for this making.

Dresses were made with the heads of the hides at the bottoms. The necks and forelegs were left in their natural shapes, to give the dresses the characteristic wavy bottoms. These were usually fringed.

The tops of dresses had several variations. In the most common method they were cut nearly straight across, then joined together by a third piece, the yoke. This was in the shape on a long rectangle. Often the yoke was made by joining together the two strips cut off the rear end of the hides in tailoring and main part of the body. Sometimes two large hides were sewn together so that the last few inches could be folded down, front and back, and stitched in place like the separate yoke. Some dresses have no yoke at all, but are simply made by sewing two hides together with the top part tailored for the shoulders and arms. Modern buckskin dresses, like shirts and leggings, are notable for being very tailored. They usually lack the legs and other natural shapes, while their fringes are generally very neat and even.

Several kinds of stitches were popular for sewing up buckskin dresses. Seams used for the tops were generally turned inside when completed. On the sides, however, they were often left exposed, some distance in from the edge of the hide, with the remaining flap cut into short fringes. Often welts were inserted in the side seams and then fringed.. A rectangular piece of hide was often sewn in between the seam, toward the bottom of a dress, to make the skirt fuller. The bottoms of sleeves are not sewn shut.

As with moccasins and other articles of hide that were to be decorated, skins used for dresses were worn with the flesh side out. Close examination shows that most dresses have pieces of skin added in various places to fill out the hides. On those dresses where the rear end of the hide hangs down in front, forming the yoke, the Deer tails were simply sewn on in the same place. This is all the decoration seen on some dresses, along with the abundant fringing.

Beadwork on old dresses was done with Real Beads, or pong beads, usually in lazy stitch. The breast band is usually in two color, like black and white, light blue and white, or pink and green. Dark and light colors were usually combined for contrast. Sometimes the colored stripes were broken up with small geometric sections, but rarely with any other designs. However, designs--and additional colors--were often used on the shoulder bands that became popular on these kinds of dresses after the small seed beads became available. Narrow, beaded strips along the bottoms of these dresses were also popular. The patches at the bottoms of most dresses were generally made of trade cloth, one side red and the other black or dark blue. These were often edged with beads, also. In addition, little pieces of trade cloth were used to back the many buckskin strands hanging down from different parts of the dresses. Long ago dresses were decorated with quillwork in place of beads.

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