Dresses played a prominent role in American Indian life, with most Indian women providing clothing for their families. Dresses weren't mere fashion items-they reflected an Indian woman's identity and showcased her artistic abilities. National Museum of the American Indian features extensive information on Indian dresses, connecting history to the present-day stories of Native American women. American.gov also gives an overview of Indian dresses.
Up until the early 19th century, Indian women used hides that men brought back from hunting as material. The earliest type of dresses was a side-fold dress, which featured one or two pieces of hide(s) with one seam that was folded into a flap around the woman's neck and waist.
By the mid-1800s, these dresses were replace with two-hide or three-hide dresses. Two-hide dresses were made with two pieces of hide joined above the shoulder and below the arm. Three-hide dresses were similar to a poncho and had a cape that could be taken off if the wearer got too hot.
Some dresses features a beaded yolk, which was the piece covering the chest. The Sioux tribe was known to create yolks covered in beadwork. Beadwork was an important part of dresses, symbolizing tribal membership and status. Tribes had their own distinct styles. For example, the Cheyenne used three beaded bands in their clothing. Native Tech describes the meaning of beadwork in Indian dresses and clothing. Furthermore, many tribes had their own styles of dress. Cherokees of California describe the Cherokee Tear Dress.
Special dresses were frequently worn in women rite-of-passage ceremonies and for ceremonial dances. The jingle dress was popular in some tribes' ceremonies and powwows. Originating with the Ojibwa of Wisconsin, the jingle dress features cones that jingle as the wearer does a special dance. University of Colorado Museum of Natural History describes the jingle dress. Twin Cities Public Television tells the tale of the jingle dress's origins.
When European settlers arrive and Indians started trading with them, there was an influx of new materials. Wool and seed beads became available, along with certain shells and other objects of ornamentation. Today there are many artists who still make authentic Indian dresses, especially those with intricate beadwork.