I've often written here on the blog about the 18thc clothing of the British women of colonial Virginia as worn today by the interpreters of Colonial Williamsburg. I've mentioned how they took the fabric, ribbons, and accessories imported from Europe and created their own fashion statements and style. But as I learned this past weekend, I've been guilty of forgetting a large group of equally fashion-conscious women in the 18thc: the Native American women of the Cherokee nation.
Native Americans were very much a presence in the colonial capital, and Colonial Williamsburg now incorporates Native American interpreters and programs into the greater "story" of the city. There was a large Native presence in 18thc Williamsburg. Members of the Pamunkey, Nottoway, and many others were involved in trading, and it was was common to see young men from various Nations in town to attend the Brafferton Indian School at the College of William & Mary.
This past weekend Colonial Williamsburg featured a special event called "Return of the Cherokee", highlighting the Cherokee delegations that traveled to 18thc Williamsburg - about 500 miles from their homes in the more southern colonies - to negotiate treaties, trades, and alliances. The delegates might arrive by themselves or with their families, and they often camped within the city. One of these encampments was recreated this weekend, and became a center for modern visitors to learn more about Native American life in the British colonial era.
And, of course, I learned about clothes. According to Felicity Wite, above left, a member of the Lakota Nation and an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, trading with first the Spanish and later the Dutch, French, and British brought the world's goods to the eastern woodlands. Native men traded furs and skins, fish, pottery goods, and wooden wares for European cloth, clothing, ribbons, handkerchiefs, and beads (a sample is shown right) that were fashioned into new styles to suit their own tastes and culture. Trade bells, thimbles, wire, buckles, and even exotic peacock feathers were put to new purposes as ornaments and embellishments.
For example, Felicity is wearing a woven check shirt that would have been intended for an Englishman, but among the Cherokees was equally popular with both women and men. Beneath it she is wearing a skirt made from English Stroud cloth, a woven woolen that was popular as a trade cloth. Silk ribbons are stitched onto the Stroud cloth to make a decorative stripe, with the ends notched and left hanging as a kind of decorative fringe. The skirt ties at the waist with a leather thong or belt. On her feet are moccasins made of smoked, brain-tanned deerskin with wool-lined cuffs, embroidered with white glass trade beads.
Another garment worn by both men and women (and soon adopted by Europeans on the frontier) was the match-coat. Originally made of fur or skin, the match-coat evolved into a large rectangle of traded Stroud cloth that could be wrapped and tucked around the body to suit the wearer's needs and tastes. Felicity showed me one match-coat, middle left, that was richly embellished with ribbons with gold thread and a pattern of white beads. Another, lower right, was not only trimmed with ribbons and woven tape, but also made use of the Stroud cloth's undyed selvage, or edge; while Europeans hid the selvages inside seams, the Cherokees incorporated the white border into their designs.
Felicity also explained that the women of each tribe had their own distinctive hairstyles. Hers was combed back into a sleek twisted club, lower left, and tied with a length of red cloth. Her "wheels" earring featured an ornament of interlocking circles, a popular motif, while in her other ear she wore a dangling triangle. Jewelry could have been made from silver, or from an old brass pot; it was the shine that mattered more than the intrinsic European value of the metal. Extra color came from the blue silk ribbon tied into the hoop.
Three blocks away from Felicity and the other women of the encampment was the mantua-maker's shop, filled with the stays (corsets), hoops, heeled shoes, caps, and sweeping petticoats worn everyday by European women (like this.) There couldn't be two more different ways of dressing, and yet both represent fashions for Virginia in 1775.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.