Fashion has always been about identity and there is perhaps no more eloquent example than in the colorful clothing traditions of Native American dress. Ornate and varied costuming defined the country's indigenous tribes by a very particular aesthetic — each of the hundreds of Native American communities carefully designated by unique style and ornamentation.
There were a few elements which remained consistent throughout all Native American tribal costumes — namely, the stalwart buckskin moccasin, simple sheath dresses for women, and leather pants for men. But ultimately, tribal clothing varied greatly depending on the demands of environment, weather, available materials, artistic inspiration, and spiritual belief. Navajo wore colorful, geometric prints, Apache sported shell chokers, the Blackfeet flaunted breastplates of buffalo horn — but the unifying factor in all of these costumes, was that they were universally beautiful.
The most marked difference between tribes could be seen in ceremonial war paint and headgear. The latter varied according to tribe, but all headgear was used only for either sacred rituals or battle... and sometimes both.
The epic feathered wonders we now wholly identify with Native American costuming came in a variety of shapes and sizes — from face-framing "war bonnet" halos, constructed of eagle feathers and colored beads, to what are known as "roach" headdresses — intimidating strips of animal hair or porcupine quills, attached to the head, Mohawk-style, with leather straps.
Women, rarely, if ever, wore headdresses, although at times they covered their heads with cloth scarves or donned simple deerskin headbands. Instead, headgear was relegated to the masculine, used in ceremonies and on the bloody fields of battle.
All in all, Native American clothes were more than merely functional — they were sacred works of art and spirit, imbued with an innate respect for nature. Every part of a slaughtered animal, be it bison or elk, deer or fowl, was incorporated into daily life, utilized for shelter, food, or ornament. What you didn't eat — you wore.
Native clothing represented not only particular beliefs, but also the very essence of tribal identity. Fringe buckskin or a turquoise Concho belt were eloquent icons in an unspoken code — a uniform that defined whom you were... and to whom you belonged.