Native American Influence on English Fashions

by Mary Ellen Lepionka

In contact situations in the early 17th century, Europeans were quick to grasp the essential humanity of Native Americans and admired their appearance and physical fitness. Their nudity and skin color were another matter, however. Traditionally among the Algonquians, both men and women protected their skin with lotions made from animal fats mixed with vegetable or mineral dyes. They otherwise wore only woven hemp or pounded inner-bark loincloths or aprons, with women naked above the waist, to the consternation of Pilgrims and Puritans alike. To this the Algonquians added stocking-style leggings and moccasins, and deer skins and furs in cold weather [1].

Ojibwa, Miani, and Wyandot
Ojibwa, Miani, and Wyandot

Catholics, at least the French—at least until the Black Robes established missions on the St. Lawrence—seemed to find this nakedness charming, but the Protestants, especially the English, were embarrassed. The Frenchman Champlain, for example, admired women’s beauty in adornment and movement:

“The natives were gentle and amiable, graceful in figure, agile in movement, and exhibited unusual taste, dressing their hair in a variety of twists and braids, intertwined with ornamental feathers….They also dye their hair, which some wear long, others short, others on one side only. The women and girls always wear their hair in one uniform style.…They are loaded with quantities of porcelain [shell nacre], in the shape of necklaces.…They also wear bracelets and earrings. They have their hair carefully combed, dyed, and oiled. Thus they go to the dance, with a knot of their hair being bound up with eel-skin.…Thus gaily dressed and habited, they delight to appear in the dance, to which their fathers and mothers send them, forgetting nothing that they can devise to embellish and set off their daughters.” [2]

English observers, on the other hand, never missed an opportunity to report on Native American nakedness and race. Here is Francis Higginson (1629) at Salem Village:

“To their Statures, they are a tall and strong limed People, their colours are tawny, they goe naked, save onely they are in part covered with Beasts Skins on one of the Shoulders, and weare something before their Privities: their Haire is generally blacke, and cut before like our Gentlewomen, and one locke longer then the rest, much like to our Gentlemen, which fashion I thinke came from hence into England.” [3]

Pawnee Curly Chief, (techasakariku)
Pawnee Curly Chief, (techasakariku) 1870.. His head is shaved with a long scalp lock.

Higginson inadvertently identifies a fashion trend in London in the 1630s—“Indian bangs” for upper-class women, emulated by merchants’ wives, and modified scalplocks, called “lovelocks”, for the men, a longer hank of hair worn over one shoulder. King Charles I wore one. A lady thus might drag her beau by his lovelock or claim him by cutting it off, Delilah-like—a far cry from being scalped (or perhaps just a “civilized” version of it). For Algonquians, the scalplock was a hank of hair a warrior groomed, decorated, and displayed as an emblem of his prowess. It was wrapped or braided or worn long over one shoulder and stuck with feathers, meant to be conveniently cut off and taken as a war trophy by the victor in battle [4].

Charles 1 by Daniel Mytens c1640
Charles 1 by Daniel Mytens c1640

Other Native styles influenced European fashions. Thomas Lechford observed (1637):

“They are of body tall, proper, and straight; they goe naked, saving about their middle, somewhat to cover shame…Their women are of comely feature…their children are borne white but they bedawbe them with oyle, and colours, presently. They have all black hair….In times of mourning they paint their faces with black lead [sic], black, all about the eye-brows, and part of their cheeks. In time of rejoicing, they paint red, with a kind of vermilion. They…weare feathers of Peacocks [sic], and such like, and red cloath, or ribbands at their locks; beads of wampompeag about their necks, and a girdle of the same, wrought with blew and white wampum, after the manner of chequer work, two fingers broad, about their loynes….” [5]

Portrait of Helena Fourment
Portrait of Helena Fourment by Portrait of Helena Fourment, 1668

Wampum was shell beads, strung or woven into belts. In late 16th century Europe, beads on ribbons and red rouge across the cheeks came into vogue for beauty. As well as furs, pearls, snakeskins, and feathers from America also came into demand for export for use in jewelry, haberdashery, fashion accessories, and furniture inlay. Fresh water mussels and salt water oysters abounded on the Atlantic seaboard, providing a new source of pearls and nacre (mother of pearl) for Queen Elizabeth I’s gowns and Europe’s royal houses. [6]

Exchanges of fashion went both ways. While upper-class English wore American feathers and furs, Native Americans prized English woven fabrics and garments, especially tailored shirts. Algonquians sewed patches of woolen cloth with beads and dyed porcupine quills to embellish their clothing [7]. The “nudity” that the first explorers and settlers remarked upon soon became a non-issue. Regrettably, however, European notions of racial superiority did not.

Queen Elizabeth I, by George Gower c1600
Queen Elizabeth I, by George Gower c1600

Notes and References: Native Influence on English Fashion

Mary Ellen Lepionka 1/21/18

1. For good overviews of European observations of Native Americans during the Contact Period, see Colin Calloway’s Dawnland Encounters: Indians and Europeans in Northern New England (1991) and Robert Grumet’s Historic contact: Indian People and Colonists in Today’s Northeastern United States in the Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (1995). Primary source accounts of Native American appearance appear in Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England (1654) and Good News from New England (1658), and William Wood’s New England Prospects (1939) in addition to the sources cited below.

2. The quote is from p. 194 of the Otis translation of Champlain’s Voyages. The print source is Charles Pomeroy Otis, Memoir of Samuel de Champlain, Volume II 1604-1610 (Prince Society, Boston. 1838).

3. The quote is from pp. 34-35 of Higginson’s New-Englands Plantation (1636)

4. In the pictures, the Native American with a feathered scalplock is a Pawnee warrior, photographed in the 1890s; the woman with bangs is Helena Fourment, second wife of the artist Peter Paul Rubens, painted by Jant Boeckhorst circa 1630; and the portrait of King Charles I with his lovelock circa 1640 is by the Dutch painter Daniel Mytens and hangs in the UK’s National Portrait Gallery.

5. The quote is from p. 116 of Lechford’s Plain Dealing (1642). (Also reprinted in Massachusetts Historical Society, Collection 3d Series, Vol. III. Cambridge, 1832: Hathi Trust Digital Library.

6. Fred West, History of Pearls, 12/29/98 NOVA. The circa 1600 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England with pearls is by George Gower.

7. European influenced Northeastern Native American dress, mid-1700s (Ojibwe, Miami, Wyandot).

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