We love talking about what makes an outfit uniquely Southern—but we can't speak on Southern attire without giving credit where credit is due. The South, and the United States itself, is a nation of many peoples and cultures adapted and influenced heavily by the Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous peoples.
As far as our records currently show, the earliest origin of Indigenous peoples' fashion began roughly in 1050 A.D. with the Pueblo people in the deep Southwestern area of land that would eventually become the United States. The Pueblo people used vertical looms to create large garments such as blankets and cloths to be fashioned into dresses, shirts, and ponchos.
In the 1500s, the Puebloans were invaded by the Spanish conquistadors. By the 1600s, the Spanish invaders' influence began showing in the Peubloan's work, with fabrics that often featured wool, indigo dyes, and basic stripe designs that evolved into more complex Indigenous fashion patterns.
Early Navajo textiles and blankets are perhaps one of the most well-known and beloved relics from Southwestern Indigenous culture. In 1650, the Puebloans shared their knowledge of weaving with the Navajo tribes, but it wasn't until the 1700s that Navajo weavers began experimenting with their designs, using diagonal lines and incorporating brighter colors.
In 1895, a wool mill opened in the town of Pendleton, OR, to sell robes and blankets to local Indigenous tribes. Although the first mill was unsuccessful, it was purchased and repurposed by the brothers Clarence, Roy, and Chauncy Bishop. By the 1900s, new loom technology produced felted blankets with designs taken directly from Indigenous peoples with vivid colors and designs.
It was around 1910 that Indigenous designs and fashion began to spread throughout American culture as a whole, along with several Mexican-inspired or stolen fashion designs frequently used by white cowboys.
During the 1970s and 80s, American fashion designer Ralph Lauren launched his Santa Fe clothing line featuring sweaters, petticoat skirts, blankets, jackets, concha belts, and other apparel using Indigenous fashion designs thanks to the rise of country music and love of Southwestern aesthetics in general.
We need to note that the early 1900s was an enormously horrific time for American Indigenous peoples, many of them confined to small reservations, while Europeans squeezed them out of land and food—meanwhile, others profiteered and took advantage of their longstanding culture to make fast money. This is still an issue today, where many Indigenous peoples' designs are featured on clothing and jewelry sold by non-Indigenous peoples that are being appropriated instead of appreciated, often with little to no credit to Indigenous artists. This is why it is so important that we take the time to learn about the profound influence indigenous people have on the fashion of today.
The Vaqueros and Today's Cowboy Fashion
Hundreds of years before the American cowboy were the vaquero, expert horsemen who adeptly herded cattle and whose skills with a lasso were legendary. The original vaqueros were comprised of Indigenous American men trained by the conquering Spaniards, who introduced them to wrangling cattle on horseback.
The vaqueros were young Indigenous men who could handle the grueling and skilled work of living on the rugged North American terrain as they braided rope, built their own saddles, and tamed wild horses while throwing the lasso. In addition to herding cattle, as New Spain expanded, they were enlisted as auxiliary skirmish forces.
The West's rough terrain also led to the invention of shaps, the leg coverings vaqueros wore to protect themselves. Their legendary lasso work, iconic pointed boots, and chaps soon worked their way and helped reshape American entertainment as the vaqueros created the elaborate lassoing tricks and roping competitions that would later become the foundations for the very first rodeo.
It wasn't until the film industry's rise that the vaquero turned into something else—white men who became cowboys who were consistently the story's hero, while vaqueros and Indigenous peoples became racialized, vilified characters.
Today, the most recognizable pieces of Southern attire, like low crowned hats, high crowned broad rimmed sombreros, bolero jackets, sashes, cowboy boots, chaps, turquoise jewelry, fringe, belts, and even belt buckles, all stem from the Indigenous and Mexican peoples of the Americas.