True History of the Cherokee Tear Dress

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This story may seem shocking and little sad to some who are romantically inclined to the modern myth about the Tear Dress. The myth is that our women wore this style of dress at the time of the Trail of Tears in 1838-39. That is not true for two reasons.

 

First of all, Cherokee never had a traditional style of dress that was unique or ethnically different than any other tribe in the hot and humid Southeastern United States. The clothing of both sexes, as described by the very earliest European adventurers, was primitive and scant, covering mostly their private parts, and made of mostly animal hides and furs. They did use a rudimentary form of finger weaving and netting to make sashes, belts and rope. Loom weaving technology, which would allow them to make piece goods, was not available until the opening of the frontier to missionaries, the Moravians in particular.

Once the Cherokees were able to weave their own fabrics and/or obtain commercially made trade goods from American mills or from England they quickly abandoned the labor-intensive leather buckskins in favor of the softer, cooler and readily available woven fabrics. The only cloth clothing they had for patterns were those worn by white traders, inter-married whites and later, the Moravian and other Christian missionary ladies.

The clothing they made was fashioned on the type of clothing they were taught to make plain, simple and utilitarian. Frontier fashion was nothing like those seen in picture books and paintings of the ladies in eastern sea coast cities such as Boston, Philadelphia or New York. The second reason that the Tear Dress could not have been worn at the time of the Trail of Tears is because the style is completely wrong for the period. Women’s fashions of every historical period have a very definite silhouette, related primarily to the rise and fall of the waistline and the shape and size of the skirt.

In the late 1830’s, the period of the beginning and the end of the Trail of Tears episode, women of fashion in the cities along the eastern seaboard were wearing garments that costume historians call late Empire, Romantic period, or Early Victorian. These styles of women’s dresses had high waists, bell shaped skirts, which compared to the previous period when skirts were exceedingly wide and heavy, were very narrow (dress makers were just beginning to perfect the art of cutting gores) and had short puffy sleeves which eventually evolved into elaborately wide and full bell shapes. Fashion on the interior did not follow those changes as quickly. Some historical experts estimate that for every 100 miles west, fashion lapsed at least five years behind the times. The Tear Dress is definitely a style that came into fashion at a later date.

There is one painting extant of a Texas Cherokee couple which shows the woman wearing a most definite “Empire” style gown – high waist, bell shaped skirt and short puff sleeves. Whether this painting was executed on site with real Cherokees as models, thus recording a moment in time, or was finished by the artist at a later time, and using another model in city-fied clothing. It was not uncommon for artists to use substitute models when painting Indian subjects.

When we were “discovered” by the Europeans, we were wearing leather garments and had no knowledge of making woven fabrics suitable for making garments. We did however have the knowledge of making a limited amount of a primitive form of weaving or twining in order to make small articles like belts and fishing nets.

Once we were introduced to white man’s trade goods and other forms of his civilization, including his type of clothing, we readily and quickly adopted the used those goods and materials without hesitation. Cloth was one of the first items to be brought in and traded to the native people. Moravian missionaries introduced weaving to the Cherokees as a means of civilizing the naked savages. Many Cherokee became accomplished weavers, as proven by the federal census that listed household members by name and each one’s trade or skills, including the number of looms and the number of weavers among the Cherokees. Christian missionaries insisted that Indian converts dress appropriately when attending church services or school. That meant that Cherokee women had to cover their bare breasts and naked legs with dresses prescribed by the white missionaries. They were taught how to sew those garments by the missionary wives and teachers. The style was simple and plain.

The most common style that comes to mind is the one called the Mother Hubbard — a shift-like garment that looked very similar to a modern day nightgown. It was the style of choice introduced to nearly all Indian tribes in schools, reservation churches and to household servants throughout the 1800’s. The Hawaiian Muumuu is the perfect example of the Mother Hubbard that was adopted and is now identified as a traditional tribal dress.

Because the Cherokees quickly adopted the lifestyle of the early white settlers, they, along with the other four major tribes of the Southeast, became known as the “Civilized Tribes”. We mimicked the dress and habits of the surrounding white communities and establishments. Some individuals maintained a type of mixed wardrobe of both native and white. Some paintings show that there were groups that continued to dress in the old Cherokee way until the late 1840’s after the Cherokees had settled into their new homelands in Indian territory. George Caitlin’s sketches (c. 1830’s at Ft. Gibson) show examples of Cherokee Indian women wearing leather garments during the early years of settlement in the newly opened Indian Territory prior to the full influx of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. One memorable sketch shows a Cherokee woman in leather wearing a paisley shawl.

Between 1839 and the 1860’s at the beginning of the Civil War, the period in which the tribe established public schools, seminaries and a formal government, the affluent Cherokees had abandoned all forms of their ethnic style of dressing. After the Civil War, a few traditionalists, who were perhaps economically the poorest, continued to retain one style of ethnic clothing, the Hunting Jacket. The basic design for the jacket was adapted from a type of popular casual garment worn by white men, called a Banyon. There is a picture of Samuel Wooster wearing a Banyan. A few rare old photographs still exist that show men wearing a native–made hunting coat.

One can surmise that these garments continued to be worn because they were easy to make at home out of store bought trade cloth or fabric they wove at home. No doubt the women in those families also wore home made clothing that was functional yet simple in design and construction. There simply are no photographs to prove this as fact or what the dresses may have looked like. Perhaps they were simple shifts or A-line type dress that were made somewhat like the old leather deer skin garments, i.e. Straight panel front and back and sewn across the shoulders and down the sides with an opening for the head and arms, much like the plains Indians’ pow-wow dresses.

Cherokee women had no such traditional tribal dress. There was no real reason for them to cling to any particular style because they few opportunities to interact with other tribes like we do today with our pow-wows and inter-tribal events. Any style of clothing that a Cherokee woman might wear at any particular time was discarded once the dress wore out and merchants introduced new fashion ideas and new types of fabrics.

The origin and adoption of the modern day Cherokee Tear Dress. The garment we call the Cherokee Tear Dress came about to fulfill the needs of a particular situation and had more to do with embarrassment than it had to do with tribal pride or tradition. The situation arose in 1968 when a young Cherokee woman, by the name of Virginia Stroud, was chosen as “Miss Indian America”. She had competed and was crowned in a Kiowa buckskin dress she had borrowed from a college friend.

W.W. Keeler, who was the appointed Cherokee Chief at the time, was approached by a group of Cherokee women about Virginia Stroud’s official wardrobe. They felt it was unacceptable for a Cherokee women who was suppose to be representing the Cherokee people in the public eye was appearing at public events dressed as a Kiowa. Chief Keeler agreed and appointed a committee of Cherokee women to find something more appropriate for Miss Stroud that would reflect the Cherokee’s eastern woodland traditions, history and style.

They could not find an established precedence in Oklahoma for a traditional tribal dress. The answer they decided could only be found someplace in North Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee. The ladies mounted a serious search for a record of a dress design that would be uniquely Cherokee and acceptable by Chief Keeler. They did not want to simply copy or adapt any other tribe’s style. And they did not want the dress to look anything like the Plain’s Indian dress. They also wanted the dress to be historically correct and if a dress could be found, it had to be documented.

About the Author:

Mr. Wendell Cochran is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. In 1989, the Tribe and the Cherokee National Historical Society awarded Mr. Cochran the title
of Master Craftsman and National Living Treasurer in the Area of Traditional Cherokee Clothing. Mr. Cochran can be contacted by e-mail: [email protected]