Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Tear Dress for The Pow Wow

This weekend is the annual pow wow at the Grand Village of the Kickapoo. For some reason it is not a highly publicized event, even though it is only about ten miles from here on a gorgeous stretch of hilly land with wild grasses, flowers and a herd of buffalo. Back when it was a public park David and I often used to go there and enjoy the peace and solitude. At night the stars glittered in an endless bowl above us - as far as we could see, nothing could obstruct the view. Unfortunately the park was sold a few years ago and is no longer public and the pow wow was in jeopardy, but at last the new owners agreed to still allow the gathering of the tribes each year, in June, as before.

No native blood flows through my European veins, but David’s great-great grandmother was a Cherokee lady. I still often protest that I have no native blood when he talks about “our people” but he insists that since I am married to him, and we are united and one, that I am just as much Cherokee as he is. In a way, I suppose he is right.

Two years ago we planned on attending the pow wow together. David wanted to show me the various goods that people sold there and wanted to go ‘in dress’. I desperately tried to research what I could in the few weeks I had before the event to try to get an idea of what accurate Cherokee dress would have been like. My findings were not satisfactory to me. It turns out, there is no accurate dress for Cherokee heritage, at least accurate to the historical fact of things.
This grated annoyingly upon me, but I had to accept that unless I wished to dress in ancient Cherokee dress I would have to make a Tear Dress, which is the accepted “Traditional Dress” of Cherokee women. Since I did not have the resources to gather skins to make a thigh length, sleeveless shift and had neither bark nor other plant fiber to weave into a fringed skirt I went to Wal-Mart and bought 4 yards of a cranberry colored calico.

The construction of the Tear Dress is interesting. (pronounced “Tear” as in “Let me tear this in two” rather than “Tear” as in “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes”. ) I made my dress following the article and instructions from The People’s Path website. The Tear Dress was created in 1968 for a young lady who was Miss Indian America. Although the style of this dress has definite historical roots there is nothing to indicate it was a chosen or preferred style for Cherokee ladies after white domination. In fact, most Cherokees dressed as white people and followed current fashion lines and lived, for all appearances, as white people.

So, the tear dress was made and later adopted as traditional dress in order to avoid the embarrassment of NOT having a traditional costume. The Tear Dress was adopted for women and the similarly styled Ribbon Shirt for men and children.

Every piece of this garment is a rectangle. (Or, supposed to be.) Based on advice and opinions from the article I used as my main instruction for creating this dress I made the yoke with fitted shoulders to avoid a large fold of fabric under the arms and I cut the collar in a curved shape, using the collar pattern piece from Folkwears Gibson Girl Blouse. Otherwise, everything else is a rectangle or square. The pieces are gathered and sewn to each other, with the ruffled area created by gathering sticking up as a decorative appearance. The trim is supposed to be applique bands but ribbon is often used. I decided to forgo both the applique and ribbon and used some lace instead. Hey, it’s not historically accurate anyway. And I like lace. :)

The dress can be made full length or mid calf length. I chose to go with the shorter length for practicality. This shorter length was also described as being more flattering to younger, more slender women (and alas, I was slender back then, even though pregnant with little David), and longer ones were supposed to be more flattering on more generously proportioned ladies.
Well, after my research and speed sewing we ended up not going to the pow wow that year. The reason was because the park had just sold and the pow wow had been cancelled. But now it appears I will finally have a chance to wear this to where it was originally intended to be worn, and I pulled out this old dress today and pressed it and got it ready for this weekend. Thankfully it still fits since the only restrictive area is the waistband, which still can squeeze my squish able flesh in enough to make it look all right. I plan on making a white petticoat with eyelet trim to wear underneath it.

For shoes, I found these knee-length moccasins my mother in law gave me last year. A thrift store find, they fit almost right, being just a bit too large. That can be remedied with thick socks and with some of David’s mink oil to freshen them up and some tightening of the stitches around the toe area they will work nicely. Apparently the shorter ankle length moccasin was more common among the Eastern Woodland people but the shorter moccasins I have need resewed since I wore them to death back in my college days.

I have two sashes I am thinking of wearing. Original Cherokee sashes were woven in a method called finger weaving. I have two woven-ish sashes although they look nothing like finger woven ones. One is coarse and kinda vintage 1970’s looking (hey, that would tie in with the First Cherokee Tear Dress though!) with beads.
The other one is a plain cream colored sash with fringe. The thing going for this one is that it is longer than the first one and is more comfortable to wear.
For a hair do I think I’ll pull back my own hair in a bun and wear my Civil War hairpiece, just uncoiling the braided bun into a single long braid, pinned it over my own hair. Original Cherokee ladies (pre White Domination) had long hair “clubbed up in ribbons” so maybe I will wind a ribbon around the braid to decorate it up a little.

Babies shall wear their Civil War gowns, David wants to go in Confederate uniform since during the Civil War there was a regiment of Cherokee men who fought for the southern cause, but I am trying to convince him to wear a ribbon shirt. He objects, strongly, saying they are “fairy looking” (otherwise girly looking).

Anyway, hopefully it won’t be too hot! Well, this ended up a long-winded post. Alas.


  1. Beautiful dress!
    Those shoes go well together with the dress!
    Hope you have a fun time there!

    Love, Jackie

  2. Finally had a chance to catch up on blog reading! Those moccasins and dress look nice.

  3. I can't wait to see it all put together! :)

  4. Ooh how fun! I'm always interested in the Cherokees. I'm part Cherokee, on my mom's side. My great grandpa used to called my mom his "little indian", but never explained why. After he died we found out that his mother was full blooded Cherokee and he was ashamed of that, quite sad. Anyway, my mom is an 1/8, and my brother and I are 1/16, I think. It's quite the interesting family story. Glad your doing well. How is the wee one inside? God Bless!



Thank you for your lovely thoughts!