Friday, October 4, 2013

17th Century Mohawk Dress

I am indebted to the Arthur C. Parker photo archive at the New York State Museum for much of the material I have used to make this painting. I am especially grateful for the assistance of Dr. Betty Duggan, Curator of Ethnography, which out which I would have been groping blindly in the dark.

Traditional Mohawk dress consisted of 5 primary elements. The blanket, the over-blouse, the skirt, The leggings, and the moccasins. We know very little about their dress before European contact, but from the writings of Hudson, Champlain, Smith, etc. a rudimentary picture can be formed. By St. Kateri's time, the Haudenosaunee were trading the the French, Dutch, and English, so European cloth had replaced whatever fabric or hides they had previously used. Especially in Canada, the trade allowed for access to European made garments, as well as fabric. But as in many things, the Native Americans absorbed and made things their own through alteration and embellishment. St. Kateri herself was held in high regard for her skill in these crafts.

Once European contact had been made, images of the Haudenosaunee began to appear. I've previously commented on Verelst's court paintings. Other images circulated more widely, such as J. Laroque's etchings and Scotin's engravings. Most of these are considered heavily romanticized, and while predicated on some historical fact, they are indebted more to Dryden and Ashley-Cooper's concept of the Natural State than they are to a cultural understanding of the Iroquois.

Two images, and one object have been most useful to me in clothing St. Kateri. Unfortunately I don't have permission to reproduce them here, but all three are found in the catalog of the Auf den Spurer der Irokesen exhibition in Bonn and Berlin. The first is a doll from the collection of the National Maritime Museum in London. While it postdates St. Kateri by a century, it was made in the Canadian Mohawk community she called home. My second source are watercolors of Iroquois made by Millicent Mary Chaplin in the early 1800s in the collections of the Library and Archives of Canada, Quebec. The third are the drawings and lithographs of the clothing made by Carolyn Parker and her family, widely considered the foremost authorities on traditional Mohawk dress. By identifying the period embellishments and materials (industrial era steel needle embroidery vs. pre-industrial quill embroidery; linen and hemp fabric vs. cotton and silk) I believe it is possible to turn back the clock on the clothing and arrive at an approximation of the dress of a typical 17th century Iroquois woman.

Her blanket I have painted in a brilliant indigo, reflecting the dye most likely employed by the Mohawk. It brighter than what we would normally see in blue jeans because the fabric of the blanket was a white trade cloth that St. Kateri would have dyed herself.  She wears it about her shoulders, as was the custom of the Mohawk, and was likely her preference in the shaded setting in which she appears.

Her blouse fits loosely, due to her petite frame, and is made of a coarse European fabric that she or her family had tailored. Many variations on the blouse exist and are recorded in drawings and etchings. Heavier blouses that covered the arms were typically worn in winter. They went sleeveless or topless in the summer, using the blanket when needed. Some beading was typical, but from the Jesuits we know that St. Kateri eschewed much of the ornamentation favored by young Mohawk women, so I have painted her blouse simply and unadorned as an undyed garment.

Her skirt is made from a heavy fabric that was wrapped around the waist. It may have been secured by a belt or cord.  Bead-work typically followed the edges of the garment. I've created a design based on patterns recorded by Arthur C. Parker, historian and ethnologist, and of the Seneca himself. The color of the pattern is indicative of the pale blue shellfish of which the beads were made from.  The pattern represents the dome-of-the-skies topped by the world tree. My bibliography contains a number of books that treat the subject of Iroquois arts and symbols in greater detail than I can here.

Many varieties of leggings seem to have been worn, some more elaborate, and others less so. I have chosen a simple loose fitting garment that would have served her well during the daily routine of the average Mohawk woman. They are simple and utilitarian, much like her moccasins. Of these, most were likely to have been made of animal hide. Moccasins consisted of a top flap and thicker bottom sole. The sole would have been wrapped up to cup the foot and sewn with sinew. More delicate and decorous moccasins may have been worn for social and ceremonial purposes, but these suit the simplicity of the rest of her garb.

© Arthur C Parker, from Certain Iroquois Tree Myths and Symbols

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