Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
October 7, 2000 - Issue 20

Cherokee Clothing
contributed by Tonia Williams from

Although there have been many styles of clothing unique to the Cherokee people throughout the years, one style remains in vogue. The Cherokee Tear Dress is the standard traditional fashion for women, and the ribbon shirt stands for the men.

The Tear Dress is believed to be the style of dress from the Trail of Tears era, when most women did not own scissors due to the removals, and confiscation of most personal and household belongings. Thus,the material was ‘torn’ from larger bolt pieces. The name is pronounced both ‘tear,’ as in Trail of Tears, and ‘tear,’ as in being torn fabric. The style of Tear Dress worn today was patterned after an actual dress stored for many years in a trunk, and believed to be from the Trail of Tears.

The dresses are styled from a calico print material, with an appliqué pattern of diamonds on the yoke and around the skirt, just above the flounce. Some Cherokee seamstresses have modified the design to utilize triangles, circles, and even the sacred seven-sided star of the Cherokee.

The Trail of Tears era dress had 3/4 length sleeves, which did not get in the way of dishes, grinding corn and nuts, and other household duties. It also had a skirt length of mid-calf, so as not to gather dirt or dew from the ground. Another feature was the button down top, a convenience for nursing children. The little girls’ dresses usually fastens in the back.

Today, the dress has been modified to be worn floor length, except for Stomp Dance shell shakers, who usually wear calf-length dresses because of the shell shackles. The sleeves are often times worn full-length.

The dress remains a ‘wearable memorial’ to our grandmothers who walked the Trail of Tears, and settled into Indian Territory.

While the Tear Dress has remained unique to the Cherokee, the male Ribbon Shirt has become familiar inter-tribal wear, especially seen on the pow-wow circuit.

The Ribbon Shirt is also made from calico fabric, with ribbon designs on the front and back. The sleeves are made similar to the Tear Dress.

Also made of calico, the traditional turban for men is still worn on certain occasions.

There are a variety of seamstresses who make both the female and male Cherokee clothing. Usually, measurements are taken for each individual, and no standard pattern per ‘dress size’ is required for an experienced seamstress.

The dress is the official garment of "Miss Cherokee" and is worn at ceremonial functions, special tribal occasions, and weddings. Most Cherokee gospel singing groups also wear the Tear Dress, and it is the official dress of the Cherokee National Choir.

Cherokee Clothing

Info provided by the Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center



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