What the First Americans Wore


In 1598, Conquistadors marched up the Rio Grande Valley into the area we now call Santa Fe, New Mexico. In full regalia, they wore wool or cotton leggings, sometimes brightly dyed, and balloon trousers. The dandies wore velvet and silk, the less dandy linen and cotton canvas. And on their worst days, they wore armor. What wouldn’t they have given for Gortex!

We have a pretty good idea what the Spanish conquerors wore around 1600 from paintings and fabric remnants and fashion accounts. I imagine the men hiking through the dry lands of the Southwest were considerably less pretty and resplendent than the romantic portraits of the era, but never mind them. What were the people they encountered in the upper Rio Grande valley wearing?

A woman of Kotyit, now Cochiti pueblo, wore a cotton tunic tied over her left shoulder, belted with an embroidered strip. The tunic came down to her knees and in warm weather, that’s all she needed. In colder months, she would drape a loose, unconstructed shirt under the tunic, add some cotton, leather, or fur leggings, and a pair of boots. She might have a cloak, short or long, made of dressed skin, probably deer, or she might have one of rabbit belts. For glamour, she added necklaces and ear pendants and bracelets.

The women spent several hours every day grinding corn by shoving a stone over a stone basin, the kernels trapped in between. Every one of them would have had lovely, toned arms, so the bare shoulder and arm style suited them and didn’t require buttons or brooches or buckles.

A man wore either a cotton kilt or a knee-length tunic. He tied his tunic over the right shoulder rather than the left, and cinched an embroidered belt around his waist. (Think nicely muscled arms accustomed to throwing lances or hoeing fields or drawing bows.) Other garments were decorated with tassels and fringe. On the hottest days, a man probably just wore a loin cloth, and when it was cold, he would have dressed as the women did with an undergarment and layered cloaks. He also adorned himself with pendants and necklaces.

The puebloans grew cotton for themselves as well as imported some from a little further south where the people had larger cotton fields. They used natural dyes that produced blues and yellows and reds. They also dyed thread for the embroidery they were fond of. I’ve seen no mention in my research of their having other fiber crops like flax, and they certainly had no wool-bearing animals. They did, however, have yucca, leather, fur, and feathers.

Yucca fibers were enormously useful. A puebloan would harvest the long blades of the yucca plant to extract the tough fibers. She could roast the long green blades and then bury them till they decayed and softened to make the task easier. You can imagine the longest fibers might have been three to four feet long. She could make sandals out of these fibers, braid them into cords for weaving, string beads on them, or tie a length through her pierced ear and suspend a piece of turquoise.

Men worked at the looms weaving cotton. They also dressed deer skins, rabbit pelts, and the occasional bear or elk skin. Buffalo lived off to the east on the plains, and sometimes the men of the pueblo hunted that far from home. More likely, though, they would have traded obsidian or turquoise or arrow heads for a buffalo hide when the plains people (Apaches, for example) came around.

Tough and thick, buffalo hide was great for shoe soles (and shield covers), but the upper parts of boots were likely to be deer hide, often bleached white. (At night, the puebloans hung their shoes overhead so as to keep the mice from gnawing the leather.) The people of Kotyit had lovely, supple leather to work with, chamois to use for leggings, boots, tunics and cloaks.

For blankets and for the warmest of cloaks, the puebloans combined yucca and fur or yucca and feathers. The people in the Santa Fe region raised turkeys, so feathers were abundant. They wrapped the feathers around the yucca fibers and then wove the resulting feathered cord into a treasure of warmth that was passed down to the next generation and the next. The same process using strips of rabbit fur instead of feathers produced a wonderfully soft rug or blanket or cloak. I imagine it would have been a heavy drape for the shoulders, but wonderful as a blanket. I wonder if making one of these feather or fur blankets was akin to our grandmothers piecing a quilt together for each of her children and grandchildren.

Both men and women wore jewelry. The puebloans mined turquoise near present day Cerrillos in northern New Mexico, and they used this stone to trade for goods as far south as the Aztecs of Mexico. Trade extended all the way west to the Gulf of California, and from there they imported shells of all kinds. The craftsman cut squarish shapes from the shells or from black shale or turquoise, drilled a hole using a sharp stick whirled by leather tongs, threaded the beads on yucca fiber or leather cord, then wet-ground the necklace in order to smooth and polish the beads.

Wolf teeth and bear claws made dramatic necklaces for the men and no doubt made a statement about their prowess. And among archaeological finds is a lovely iridescent conch shell tablet which had been worn around someone’s neck on a leather thong.

As for dressing their hair, the most common style referenced in my research applies to Hopi women, a pueblo people who live two hundred miles west of the Santa Fe area. These women wound their long black hair around moulds at each side of the head, a little like Princess Leia in the first Star Wars movie, but bigger and blacker and shinier. Other references mention pueblo women wearing their hair loose.

Using the natural materials at hand and their own ingenuity, Americans of the pueblos produced practical, comfortable, stylish clothing.

References: The Pueblo Indians of North America by Edward P. Dozier ; Tales of the Cochiti by Ruth Benedict; The Delight Makers by Adolf F. Bandelier; The Pueblo by Charlotte and David Yue; National Geographic, February, 1964, Vol. 125, No. 2.