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Women's Leggings: Kiowa vs. Comanche.

Despite such articles as Michael Kostelnik's Whispering Wind moccasin series, there continues to be confusion --and misidentification--for Kiowa and Comanche women's leggings. [1] The early construction and decorative traits for these articles of footwear which Kostelnik described were well established by the Reservation Period, such that these features are used consistently today. This article revisits those characteristics with a view toward what features are critical for someone now seeking to reproduce contemporary leggings from these tribes.

Since the early 1800s, the customary footwear among Southern Plains women has been what non-Indians refer to as "high-top moccasins" or "boots". This is a one-piece leather article consisting of a moccasin-like section with hard rawhide sole and an upper extension which fully covers the lower leg. But among both Kiowa and Comanche women, these are referred to as "leggings", and so this term will be used in the remainder of the article. Although there are collected examples of Southern Cheyenne women's footwear consisting of separate moccasins and leggings, they, too, also had the one-piece "legging".

To those who are unfamiliar, Kiowas and Comanches are thought of as being much the same culturally. However, this is far from fact. The Comanches, Uto-Aztecan language speakers, separated from the Shoshones before the 1700s and by the early 1700s were well-established on the Southern Plains. The Kiowas, Kiowa-Tanoan speakers who were forced out of their Black Hills homelands by the Sioux, migrated south in the early 1800s and initially were enemies of the Comanches. However, by 1830 they had accepted each other as friends and allies. From that time forward, they often raided and camped together, yet maintained differences in social structure, ceremonialism, language, and other cultural elements.

Today, the ancestors of both tribes are located near each other in communities in southwest Oklahoma. As has been demonstrated, tribes who interact and live in proximity often adopt aspects of, or are inspired by, each other's material culture [2], and so it is with these two tribes. For example, to the untrained eye it is difficult to distinguish between earlier Kiowa and Comanche men's moccasins. The main and generally consistent structural differences between Kiowa and Comanche men's moccasins are a variation in tongue construction and attachment found on early moccasins (Fig. 1), as well as the shape of the toe; more on this later. Since the early 1900s, moccasin tongues, however, have been constructed and attached in the same manner by both tribes, with the beadwork also many-times indistinguishable.

Likewise, the construction for Kiowa and Comanche women's leggings is the same, but on powwow/ceremonial leggings there is a singular difference in beadwork decoration of the vamp, and this makes it easy to differentiate between Kiowa and Comanche women's leggings. Unfortunately, the literature and authorities continue to add to the confusion. As one example, the book Spirits in the Art from the Plains and Southwest Indian Cultures has images of Kiowa and Comanche women's leggings which are misidentified between Kiowa and Comanche. [4] Even the most prestigious auction houses in recent years have sold misidentified Southern Plains women's leggings for considerable amounts. And the list of other examples is extensive.

This being said, there certainly are similarities in how and where beadwork is applied to both Kiowa and Comanche leggings, and these features hold true especially today in the making of "special occasion" leggings by both tribes. Figures 2 and 3 show Kiowa and Comanche women's leggings, respectively. Note the vertical flap that extends upward on each of the leggings from both tribes. Around the outer borders of this flap is applied a single line of beaded lane stitch. There also is a horizontal beadwork lane around the ankle seam and a small vertical lane covering the heel seam. Most examples--especially modern--incorporate these so-called lazy stitch lanes, though a few rare (mostly older) examples have gourd stitch bead lanes. And, it is worth noting, both tribes applied German silver buttons along the center of the flap, while today usually substituting two-pronged nickel spots. However, these buttons, and the practice of applying bead lanes on the flap and around the ankle, are where the decorative similarities end. Note that, on the Comanche examples in Figures 3 and 4, there is NO beadwork on the vamp of the moccasin (the part that actually covers the foot). However, on the Kiowa leggings (Figures 2 and 5), there IS a prominent beadwork design on the top middle of the foot section. Further, both these examples demonstrate a lane of beadwork around the lower perimeter of the vamp above the sole seam. These are the distinguishing characteristics of Kiowa women's leggings, as opposed to Comanche leggings which have no beadwork below the ankle (except the heel seam beading on many--but not all examples). While not all Kiowa leggings will have the bead lane just above the sole seam, they will always have a design on the vamp.

The most common Kiowa vamp design is often referred to as an oak leaf, and it can be seen in numerous variations. But round medallions and other types of design elements are also used. Somewhat of a curiosity on historic examples is that sometimes there can be a different design on each vamp of a matching pair of leggings. (Fig. 6) Further, historic Kiowa examples occasionally had vamp designs that were not centered on the top of the foot.

Figures 7 and 8 are historic photos which prominently show Kiowa and Comanche females and their leggings. The subjects in the photos have been identified, and so we know that the girls in Fig. 7 are Kiowa and the Fig. 8 women are Comanche. The decorative bead difference is readily apparent. Of course, by the late 1800s we have many more photos of identified Kiowa and Comanche women, so it is easy to observe these consistent differences in the leggings and arrive at the above conclusion about tribal differences regarding vamp beadwork.

Further, Kiowa and Comanche women today readily acknowledge this difference on contemporary leggings.


As anyone who has studied Native Americans and their material culture knows, there are no absolutes. Thus, all the above having been said, my research has uncovered some exceptions.

William Soule's photographs of Southern Plains people, which he photographed at Ft. Sill, Indian Territory from 1869 through 1874, include probably the largest collection of Comanche and Kiowa photographs made by a single photographer at this early period. [5] In this collection are at least two photos made of the same two Kiowa women, and we know they are Kiowa from their dresses. Both subjects are wearing leggings with beadwork on the flaps but no beadwork on the vamps, as well as the pointed big toe feature on the soles.

Further study of pre- and early 1900s photos from other Southern Plains photographers reveals additional females, identifiable as Kiowas based on their dresses, who clearly have no beadwork below the ankle, even though there is beadwork on the flaps. As an example, in Fig. 9 there are two Kiowa sisters, identified by name. One has beadwork on the vamps of her leggings and the other does not.

One possibility for this inconsistency could be that "everyday" Kiowa leggings may not have always been beaded below the ankle, with leggings having vamp beadwork being reserved for formal occasions. This holds true today for the few traditional Kiowa women who make "everyday" leggings without beadwork.

Other Characteristics

As pointed out by Kostelnik, one Comanche identifying feature of both men's moccasins and women's leggings is found on the soles. There, the big toe location has the shape of a sharp, almost pointed corner. (Fig. 10a) Kiowa footwear most often has rounded toes. (Fig. 10b) Although today's makers from both tribes use the rounded toe, some Comanche craftspeople still incorporate the pointed toe in their moccasins.

The lack of beadwork on the vamps of Comanche women's leggings is in keeping with their minimalistic decorative traditions. Further, the beadwork typically reflects a limited color palette with white backgrounds and red, white, and two shades of blue in the design elements. You also will find this true on men's moccasins, women's belt bag sets, peyote/gourd stitch beadwork done on purses or bags, hairbrushes, small hair ornaments, charms, etc. The most common historic Comanche leggings designs consist wholly or in part of an unbroken horizontal line in red (occasionally blue) which rises to a point as it goes above a triangle/tipi/mountain design element. (Fig. 11)

Kiowa beadwork uses a broader color selection for these same kinds of articles. [6] Specific to our topic, leggings beaded with dark red backgrounds and sometimes with pink included as a color element are more likely to be Kiowa. (Fig. 2b) Knowledge of Kiowa beading colors and design choices is also very helpful in identifying historic leggings without vamp beadwork as Kiowa.

As can be seen in the historic examples throughout this article, the leather of both Kiowa and Comanche leggings was painted with earth pigments. Yellow appears to be the most popular color, but green was used sometimes by women of both tribes. Today, with the trend toward bright white buckskin dresses and accessories, the leggings are also kept white.

And, although twisted fringes along the top of the legging "tube" are more often seen on Comanche leggings, both triangular flap extensions and fringes can be seen on both Comanche and Kiowa women's leggings, especially in modern times. So these elements are not exclusively identifying features.

Changes Over Time

In the pre-automobile days when Indians still often rode horses, women's leggings had much longer upper extensions. (Fig. 12) This upper part of the legging actually covered the knee, above which was secured a cord for a garter, and the remaining part of the leather was folded back over the knee. This provided protection to women's legs from chafing while riding, as well as covering the otherwise exposed leg when the dress was hiked up when in the saddle. Further, examination of many early leggings demonstrates that the decorated front flap was usually sewn down along all its edges to the rest of the upper. It has been only in the post-reservation era when leggings have been made where the upper is routinely split vertically, i.e., not sewn into a tube, so that, once the moccasin section is on the foot, the wearer then ties the flap closed. And leggings since that time have no longer extended above the knee.

Although the above characteristics should be taken into consideration when attempting to identify leggings as either Comanche or Kiowa, the definitive feature to look for on contemporary pieces is whether or not there is beadwork--any beadwork on the vamps.

This article is dedicated to the late Earl Fenner, an unequalled wealth of knowledge on Southern Plains and Prairie peoples, who was always superbly generous in sharing information for the benefit of others. Earl, you are sorely missed.


[1.] Kostelnik, Michael. (2016). Comanche Moccasins. Whispering Wind, 44:5, and Women's Leggings. Whispering Wind, 44:6

[2.] Wissler, Clark (1915). Costumes of the Plains Indians Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History vol. XVII, Part II. Reprinted by Crazy Crow Trading Post. Pottsboro, Tx. 2006.

[3.] Calcaterra, Paul. (ca. 2010). Illustrations presented on Plains Indian Seminar internet discussion site.

[4.] Hanson, James. (1994). Spirits in the Art from the Plains and Southwest Indian Cultures. Kansas City, Mo.: The Lowell Press, pp. 72-73.

[5.] Belous, Russell E. and Weinstein, Robert A. (1969). Will Soule-Indian Photographer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma 1869-74. Los Angeles, Ca.: The Ward Ritchie Press.

[6.] Fenner, Earl. Correspondence 2015.

Caption: Fig. 1 Kiowa & Comanche men's moccasin tongue styles Illustration by Paul Calcaterra [3],

Caption: Fig. 2a: Kiowa leggings.

Caption: Fig. 2b: Kiowa leggings heel seam. Private collection.

Caption: Fig. 3a: Comanche leggings.

Caption: Fig. 3b: Comanche leggings heel seam Private collection.

Caption: Fig. 4: Comanche leggings vamps demonstrating no beadwork Private collection.

Caption: Fig. 5: Kiowa leggings vamps demonstrating beadwork on tops and along edges Author's photo.

Caption: Fig. 6: Kiowa vamps showing different designs on same pair of mocs Author's collection.

Caption: Fig. 7: Historic photo of Kiowa girls with leggings Written Heritage collection.

Caption: Fig. 8 (left): Quanah Parker, Comanche, with three of his wives (note their leggings). Written Heritage collection.

Caption: Fig. 9 (right): Lizzie & Edith Forts, Kiowa. Written Heritage collection.

Caption: Fig. 10a (above): Comanche sole showing pointed toe Private collection.

Caption: Fig. 10b: Kiowa soles showing rounded toes Author's collection.

Caption: Fig. 11: Comanche beadwork lane demonstrating unbroken line in red (occasionally blue) which rises to a point as it goes above a triangle/tipi/mountain design element. Author's collection

Caption: Fig. 12 (below): Comanche leggings showing extra length above knee. Note where the knee has stretched the leather, leaving an impression. Earl Fenner photo.
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Author:Hardin, Barry
Publication:Whispering Wind
Date:May 1, 2019
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