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Two Cheyenne Dresses.

Examinations of the university reserve collections in England at Manchester and Cambridge has brought to this writer's attention an interesting collection of Native material sold at auction in the early 1900s. A portion of this collection of moccasins, leggings, other items and the two dresses illustrated here are clearly Cheyenne or Cheyenne "style". Of the two dresses examined at Cambridge, one is labeled "Cheyenne, Montana", although perhaps of Southern Cheyenne origin. Both are clearly classical transitional Cheyenne specimens dating circa 1885-1900.

Researching published work of Cheyenne examples and Arapaho [1] dresses of this period and later, clearly shows a distinctive style of art and decoration which in still present in the modem Oklahoma buckskin dresses. The origin of this style of dress is not known. One theory is that it is an adaptation of the Apache dress of a two-piece skirt and separate yoke by the Kiowa and Comanche, hence spreading to the Cheyenne and Arapaho. However, it is a classic three-hide dress known throughout much of the Plains area, and possibly its diffusion was the reverse; i.e., spreading from the Cheyenne-Arapaho to the Kiowa and Comanche.

These two dresses are constructed from three buckskin hides with two smaller hides used for fringes, extensions, etc. However, if these three basic hides are large enough, much of the fringing would be used from these. The front and back are pieced together like a tube from two rectangles, with the original hide shape completely trimmed off. The yoke or cape hide is folded and sewn on at 90 degrees to the body with the animal legs or, as on these examples, false legs hang below the arms.

Usually three bands of beadwork decorate the yoke, often applied directly to the hide; two bands of beadwork are sewn and one band along the shoulder fold. The head aperture is a simple slit (Dress A), laced up with thong or trimmed with red tradecloth; buckskin ties at the comers allow for adjustment. Below the front and back beaded strips are fringes of buckskin thongs decorated with large beads, the fringe being simply laced in and out of the hide. On one of these Cheyenne traditional dresses, sides and underside sleeves are sewn together. However, on some later Oklahoma dresses notable from the Kiowa and Comanche, the sides are laced together.

Approximately half way down the front and back is a narrow band of one-lane-wide beadwork or a red line (paint) below which another buckskin thong fringe is added. Along the bottom of the skirt are curve or zig-zag motifs usually of beadwork, red painting or buckskin overlap via folding the skirt hide back and shaping before stitching down; any combination of these decorations are found.

At the corners of the skirt bottom are attached extensions to simulate the original animal leg. These are sometimes attached at an angle so that they stand outwards [2] and frequently seem to be decorated with tin jingles and beadwork. [3] On example Dress A, the yoke is attached to the skirt with a 2 'A inch overlap. Under one sleeve, false legs are attached; but the other sleeve retains the original animal leg.

The dimensions would be for a small adult and there would have to be a proportional increase for a taller person. Dress B is a girl's dress and dimensions should be increased for an adult.

The beadwork, which is typically Cheyenne, is sewn directly onto the yoke, although on Dress B the beadwork is on separate buckskin strips and later sewn to the yoke. The beadwork on both dresses has an inner block with combinations of yellow, green, light blue surrounded by dark blue. The outer elements are rose under whites with small triangles.


Thanks to the museum staff at University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


[1] Hilger, Sistem M. Inez. (1952). Arapaho Child Life and its Cultural Background. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 148. Washington, D C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. Plate 37 is a photo of Arapaho dress of the same style in the Chicago Natural History Museum.

[2] Feder, Norman. (1959). Modern Oklahoma Buckskin Dress. American Indian Hobbysit, 4:9 & 10.

[3] Conn, Richard. (1961). Cheyenne Style Beadwork. American Indian Hobbyist, 7:2.

[4] Her Many Horses, Emil (ed). (2007). Identity by Design. National Museum of the American Indian, ,, Smithsonian Institution; p. 56.

Caption: Cheyenne Beaded Hide Girl's Dress, c. 1900, of classic form with fringed edges, yellow stained yoke. The beaded strips and detail are done using multicolored glass and metallic seed beads, the yoke with beaded fringe using larger "pony trader" blue and cobalt beads, the bottom trimmed with tin cone danglers; length. 46 inches

Photograph courtesy Skinner Auctions,

Caption: Cheyenne 3-hide dress, c. 1930 decorated with three bands of beadwork on cape; red paint on bottom of skirt and neck. [4]

Photograph by Ernest Amoroso, National Museum of the American Indian.
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Author:Johnson, Michael G.
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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