Clothing The Modern Nation: The Formal Cloth Dresses of the Kiowa, Comanche and Iroquois Tribes

Original Work by W.R.Lerro

copyright 1994 - 1999

As ideals go, I suppose the thought process for this work started some thirteen years ago when I began trying to research a Modern Kiowa Women's Cloth Dress. The only real information I could dig up seemed to come from three basic sources; my dance team leaders, going to actual gatherings, or literature that had been published some ten to twenty years before. This may seem not to be a problem but in each instance I was not completely satisfied.

My leaders did and still do know an enormous amount about the culture of a wide variety of American Indian Tribes. The problem was that a major part of being in Na-Ta-Ya, my all female, traditional American Indian Dance Team, was finding a tribe you are interested in or may be related to and researching on your own the customs, traditions, and morays of the particular group. Many times a particular tribe would have to be overlooked, not because of any great conspiracy but because we, as a group, could not find enough information.

A great place to gather information in the raw, so to speak, is at a pow-wow or if your ourlucky enough to be invited, a society gathering. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to photograph some of the more interesting and unique costumes at Traders Village in Grand Prairie, Texas about ten years ago. I have found many of the pictures to be absolutely invaluable when double checking facts to reality. On the other hand, though these functions are a great place to see all forms of costuming used in practical application, they are also social and spiritual gatherings for the people present. Deep inside, constantly bothering these people about the minute details of their personal tribal dress gives me the same creepy feeling as watching someone change big bills for smaller ones in the communion plate. It just shouldn't be done. There is a fine line between showing a general appreciation for the beauty created by someone else and down right rudness. 99.9% of the time the rudeness is on the part of the visitor not the Indians. I think I compare constantly bugging a dancer about there use of colors, or the kind of feathers used for their dress clothing akin to having an I.R.S. officer bust in at a family reunion. I'm sure you get the drift.

The third reason for this information to be presented in such a way is rather obvious. If you have tried to find information in general about female Native American Dress, you may have come up as lacking as me. Even the older books about what a "modern" women would wear are few and far between. What I have found has been very informative but I just haven't been able to find the one kind of book that sets the basic rules in clear terms all at once. The Internet has opened up new avenues of information gathering, but there are those of us that still do not wish to surf the information highway. Getting out my computer, logging on, and searching through massive amounts of headings and sub headings every time I want to confirm a certain color or bead pattern for a dress I'm working on is just not practical. So here we are. This will not be the most concise ever wrote nor will it probably answer all the questions one might have about Modern Southern Female American Indian Dress but I hope it will help fill in some of the holes and maybe help some of you be able to recognize part of the subtle differences between the different tribes.For more detailed instructions on the costumes, besides the dress and apron, e-mail me and I will send further text along. May the Great Spirit bless and keep you and yours.

Windy Renee' Lerro


To Karen Postma and Francia Conway for giving me the appreciation of my heritage and the knowledge to explore it's great variety on my own.

To the women of Na-Ta-Ya for being sisters to a young women when she needed them. Gini, Kapi, Kim, Mi'chelle, Erin, Mari, Diane, Vicky, and all those before and after, my greatest love and respect.

And to Manie. You know why.


Chapter 1

The Cloth Dress

The first thing to discuss is the T-dress, this being the basis of the costume. The T-dress, so named because of its shape, is usually seen on three different tribes. These tribes are the Kiowa, Comanche, and Iroquois. Though all three groups wear T-dresses, each costume has subtle differences in their design which make them unique to the specific tribe.

The Kiowa tribe uses just the plain T-dress with no embelishments. Its neckline is slit across the top of the dress from the edge of one collar bone to the other and kept from slipping off with thongs. The Comanche T-dress has the addition of two, three by three inch tabs at the base of the dress and ribbon edging at the base of the sleeves and bottom the skirt and tabs. Its neckline is slit two to three inches down the back and is fastened with a button at the top. The Iroqouis dress is made plainly, as with the Kiowa but its neckline is made in the same style as the Comanche, slit down the back with a button at the top.

Each tribe has specific materials and colors they used with their costumes. Traditionally the Kiowa and Comanches predominatly used calicos. A calico type fabric origonally ment fabric that had been printed with a design over and over again.This type of cloth became popular in the late 1700's when the French imported it into America and started using it for trade cloth. The word calico today generally means a cotton based cloth with small floral type pattens printed on it. Today, the type of fabric is only limited by the wearer.

The Iroquois, being a colder region tribe, tended to use heavier weighted fabrics for their cloth dress.Satins, silks, and taffetas were availible from traders and were warmer to wear. Since this costumes emergence in the Southern states, lighter weighted fabrics are being used.

Whereas fabrics are not too critical to these costumes, colors are. The Kiowa traditionally used the colors dark blue, yellow, red, light blue, orange, brown, tan, and occationally black and white. The Comanche traditionally used the colors dark blue, red, yellow, white, light blue, brown, tan, and black. These colors were origonally found in the natural flora and fauna. One color that was not used and is still not used except for mourning is green. The Iroquois traditionally used the colors dark blue, light blue, red, black, white, dark orange, and green. These days colors are much more varried. Teals, pinks, aquas, electric blues, pearlesent yellows, and so on are on the incline. I was trained to pick three to four complementing colors within the range provided by the guidelines of which ever tribe I was reserching. For example, I have a Kiowa costume and the colors I used are red, blue, turquois and white. My eldest daughter has a Comanche costume and her colors are ice blue, silver, royal blue, and gold.. My youngest daughter has also has a Kiowa and her colors are orange, blue, and yellow. As you make decisions about your color usage, hands on reserch at pow-wows and gatherings is sugested.

Since you now have the right supplies lets start making the dress. I have read many different ways to "properly" measure the size of this dress. In Ty Stewart's article, "Southern Style Cloth Dress" published in the mid-seventies, he states, "... using one piece of material folded over in half. People with blouse sizes 30 to 34 will need 3 yards of 45" material. Sizes 36 and over will need 54" wide material. Girls over 5'6" should use 3-1/2 yards of material." I have found that this is very confusing if you do not sew very much. Then again, I sew quite a bit and I still find this confusing. The best way I have found for measuring the width and length of this dress is really quite simple. Take a tape measure or knotted string and measure from 2" below the elbow across the front of your chest to 2" below the opposite elbow .This is measurement #1. This will give you your shoulder width and arm length. Next measure from the same 2" below your elbow to the inside of your underarm. This measurement is #2. Measure now from the top of your shoulder to about 4" to 6" below your knee cap. This will give you your length and measure #3. For the bust measurement, measure around the fullest part of the bust and add four inches. This will give you a 1/2" seem on each side with 3" inches leeway. Double your length measurement and this will be the figure used to purchase your cloth. Marked on figure 1 is the main fold line, the fold and sew lines for the side seams, the bottom edge seam, and the open arm seams.

In all you should have five separate measurements;
  • Your combined shoulder width and arm length.
  • Your sleeve depth.
  • Your length.
  • Your bust measurement.
  • Your total fabric length before folding.

You now will need to take two more measurements. Take your original bust measurement and half it. Write this figure down. You'll use it in a minute. The last measurement you take will be for placing the depth of the sleeve. Take the tape measure or string and find your length from the top of your shoulder to 1/2" below your underarm vertically down the front of your chest. Fold the cloth into two equal halves, where it is folded will later be the head opening. Using your last measurement, shoulder to underarm, mark it on the edge of your fabric. At this mark, measure across the garment with your halved bust figure. Try to center this figure on the fabric. Cut on the mark on each side of the garment through both widths of the fabric but only as deep as measurement #2, your sleeve depth, instructed you to.

Construction is as follows. Open the garment and using either a running long stitch or a machine, turn under the edge of the sleeve and make a 1/2" seam. Fold a second time and make a second seam. Along the edge of the sleeve do the same stitching making sure to not sew the the sides of the sleeve together. With the inside-out, stitch the long vertical edges of the dress together. Use a double 1/2" seam at the bottom of the dress to hem it applying the same technique as on the sleeves. The last thing to do before your dress is completed is to cut and hem the neck opening. Cut a slit on the fold that is the length from the outer edge of your right collar bone to the edge of your left collar bone. This opening should be approximately 4" to 6" bigger than your head opening. To secure it so it does not slip from the shoulders a tie will be threaded through both sides of the dress, about 1" from the side of your neck. You now own an Indian T-dress. As complicated and drawn out as these instructions seem, once you have made your first dress, the others will be quite easy.

Certain aspects of this dress are made because it is traditional. The T-dress uses very little fabric and can be made quite quickly. A dress that has been out grown but is still in serviceable condition would have been cut and refit to a smaller sibling or child. I myself have done this on occasion for my younger daughter. The sleeves are left open for two very practical reasons. The first is for air-conditioning. If you live or have ever visited Texas, Oklahoma, or some of the other "hot" states during the summer you will understand why venting is needed. The sleeves can be turned up over the shoulder to allow air to circulate through the front of the dress and to bare the arms to catch an errant breeze. The second reason is to let a mother have access rather easily to her breast. Small children were carried constantly with the mother and she needed to be able to feed them without completely stopping her daily routine. This style was really the first nursing smock available.

Chapter 2

The Apron

The cloth apron is the next part of the costumes that should be discussed.. It is not an apron such as is worn when cooking in the kitchen. It is a piece of material long enough to swath the circumference of your hips and cross over itself left over right five to seven inches.

Colors used in the apron should follow the guide lines set out in chapter one. Sometimes the apron will be the same color as the T-dress but this is usually done only with a large, floral printed material. I have found this approach to be quite striking if one uses the right fabric.
Most people use a contrasting color. My Kiowa dress is red so to compliment it I have made an apron of blue and an apron of turquois.

Making the apron is much easier than the T-dress was. The length will vary from person to person. It should reach to about 1" to 1-1/2" below the knee. The bottom of the fabic is hemmed with a quarter inch fold over. The top is gathered in a running long stitch or pleated four times so to fall two pleats in the back and one on each side of the crossover. I have found that the gathered approach is easier to make and that it lays nicer under the belt. A piece four inches wide and as long as your waist circumference plus 2" should be folded over and stitched to the top of the gathered material to make the top.

The apron seems to have croped up around the late 1800's, early 1900's. In the last seventy-five years, with the availibility of silk-based fringe in a wide varity of lenghts and colors, both male and female dancers have started using this fringe to decorate their costumes. Women of the Kiowa, Comanche, and Iroquois tribes "fringe" the bottoms of their aprons by using a needle and pulling one to two pieces of chainett fringe through the hem of the apron about every 1/4 of an inch. Then, pulling the two ends even, tying a knot at the base of the hem. Thin riibbon is now being seen as an alternative to the chainett fringe. I have found that the best way to attach it is to use iron-on hem sticky. It holds the ribbon on very securly, is quick, and does not snag and mar the ribbon as a machine does. Traditionally this apron was used for two reasons. The first was to keep the bottom portion of the skirt clean thereby saving on wear and tear to the T-dress. The second was a kind of pocket system. By wrapping the ends of the apron into the belt a wrap around pouch was created at the waist of the wearer.

I hope this was of some to help to you and that you are on the way to creating your own dress.

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