The Indians living in the vicinity of Roanoke Island when Sir Walter Ralegh's explorers "discovered" them in the 1580s used clothing, not only to protect their bodies from the elements, but also to establish their status or rank in the tribe or community.
Firsthand descriptions of Native American attire were recorded by Arthur Barlowe in his narrative of the 1584 reconnaissance; by Thomas Harriot in his Brief and True Report, written after his eleven months residency in the Lane settlement; and by John White in his journal of the 1587 colony. In 1584, Lupold von Wedal commented on the appearance of Manteo and Wanchese in London. Later, in 1590, the English and European people were given their first view of coastal Algonquian dress. The source was Part I of Theodor De Bry's America, which included engravings of the paintings that John White had made during his tenure with the Lane colony and captions by Thomas Harriot.
Since most of the observers saw the original inhabitants of coastal North Carolina in summer attire, their composite records provide detailed information about the Indians' seasonal clothing, the ornaments they wore, and the degree to which they used cosmetics and body decoration.
Basic Indian attire was of several types, most of which were unisex. As John White complained in 1587, after he and his men had mistakenly attacked some friendly Croatoan women, instead of the men of Dasamonguepeuk they were seeking, "Their men and women apparelled all so like others, we knewe not but that they were all men." Most men and women wore an apron-like fringed skirt that extended from the waist to mid-thigh. Although the skirt was sometimes doubled to cover both front and back, more frequently than not, it was a single garment worn in the front only. The apron was usually made from deerskin, slightly doubled over at the top, and tied at or above the waist. Since the garment had no top, breasts or chests were exposed. Higher-ranking members of a tribe usually decorated the fringe of the skirt with pearls. When attending solemn feasts or preparing for hunting expeditions, men who wore single-sided aprons occasionally attached a long animal tail on the back side of their waist girdle.
A second type of Native American attire was the breechcloth. Used by men and women alike, it consisted of a very brief animal pelt that was worn by tucking the skin under a waist girdle in such a manner that the animal's head was always overhanging on the top. Breechcloths were usually worn on the front only.
In contrast, some men and women wore clothing that covered most of the body. One such style was a skin cloak with a scooped, fringed neckline. The garment, which also had a fringed hemline, extended from the shoulders to the knees. One variation of the basic skin dress was a toga-style garment, worn draped over one shoulder. Extending in length to mid-thigh, it was also fringed. The basic design was slightly altered to produce another kind of dress that offered protection against the winter weather. The resultant garment consisted of a large skin that was lined with another fur. It was worn draped over one shoulder and extended to mid-calf.
On the other hand, the clothing worn by tribal priests was totally different. Their cloak, made of soft dressed rabbit pelts, quilted with the fur on the outside, was a short garment that ended mid-thigh in an even hemline. Worn tied on the right shoulder, the garment left only one arm exposed. To the English settlers, the priest's cloak resembled a woman's petticoat that had been gathered at the neck instead of the waist.
Even though the Native Americans were limited in their choice of material for clothing, they frequently added variety by dyeing deerskins. According to Harriot, the Indians used the bark from Tangomockomindge ("little bear tree or shrub") to dye their mantles various shades of red. No such tree, however, has been located in the area. The Indians secured most of their red dye from the Pocone root, a commodity for which they traded with the inland tribes.
The same dyes were used as hair coloring and body paint. In most instances, women decorated their arms, either with paint or a tattoo, in intricate designs which gave the appearance of armlets. Some women painted similar ornamentations on their legs and used equally elaborate facial make-up.
Except on special occasions, men did not paint or tattoo their bodies as women did. Yet, when visiting other villages, engaging in religious ceremonies, or preparing for battle, their body paint was elaborate. They decorated their faces and chests, circled their nipples, and adorned their shoulders, upper arms and calves. To identify their tribe or status within the group, men painted their backs with distinctive symbols.
Painting and tattooing were rarely sufficient ornamentation, and both sexes bedecked themselves with earrings, necklaces, and other accessories. Most jewelry consisted of pearls, or combinations of pearls, copper and bone, all of which were worn strung or looped. Indian men in a position of authority wore "a chaine of great pearles, or copper beades or smoothe bones abowt their necks, and a plate of copper hinge upon a stringe.". The symbolism could not have been lost on English settlers familiar with the "S" chain of office in their own country. The conjurers, or medicine men, fastened a "small black cirde above one of their ears as a badge of their office" and carried a bag attached to a belt or rope around their waist.
Similarity in dress and ornamentation between sexes did not carry over to hair style. The dominant style for women was a kind of shag: short on the sides, bangs in the front, and either loose in the back or tied in a bun. In contrast, most men scraped or plucked one or both sides of their heads and wore a coxcomb on the tip. Men who grew long hair on one side also wore a knot of hair behind one ear. The tribal priest scraped both sides of his head, and sported a coxcomb fronted with a stiff border of hair over his forehead.
The coastal Indians wore moccasins in the winter, but they are usually depicted barefooted in White's paintings made during the warmer seasons.
The Indians who traveled to England with the explorers quickly discarded their skins and furs, and donned Elizabethan attire. Manteo and Wanchese, who returned with Amadas and Barlowe in 1584 initially appeared in London in "a mantle of rudely tanned skins of wild animals, no shirts, and a pelt before their privy parts." Before long, they were seen strutting about in London in brown taffeta Elizabethan attire. It would be interesting to know whether they continued to wear the cumbersome English outfits after their return to Roanoke Island in 1585, or reverted to their more comfortable and durable skin aprons, cloaks and mantles.
Text is based on "Indian Dress and Ornaments in Coastal North Carolina 400 Years Ago,"
by David Stick. Edited and expanded by lebame houston and Wynne Dough.
Last updated: April 14, 2015