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For many decades, visitors to South Florida have been struck by the novel and colorful dress of the Seminole Indians. Bands of intricate designs adorn most garments. Patchwork clothing, considered by many to be the Seminole's traditional dress, is really quite modern, flowering around 1920.
The Seminoles are composed of various culturally related tribes which began to migrate into North Florida sometime before 1750. These migrations were the result of the European political situation in Colonial North America. Consequently, the tribes which were to become the Seminoles had already replaced most of their native clothing for clothing they made from European trade goods, often borrowing European patterns as well.
From studying early paintings made of Seminoles and from examining the few items of dress which have survived this era, we find that Seminole clothing of the early 19th century was similar to that of other Southeastern tribes. It also appears that Seminole clothing patterns from this period continued to be in vogue until the early years of this century.
The woman's garment consisted of a very full, floor-length skirt, gathered at the waist with an adorned area and ruffle at knee length. Her long sleeved blouse has an attached cape, trimmed also with a ruffle, which came only to the shoulders. The blouse was very short, barely covering the breasts and leaving a few inches of midriff exposed between the bottom of the blouse and the top of the skirt. Old photographs usually show Seminole women with their arms crossed in front of this gap, doubtless to conform to the photographers sense of decency.
To complete the woman's outfit, she wore as many strings of glass necklace beads as she could afford. The amount of beads worn by the women was a constant source of amazement to non-Indian observers and gave rise to a popular fable which has been retold in poetry and stories. As the story goes, a Seminole baby gets the first strand of beads at birth and additional strands every year thereafter. At middle-age the sequence is reversed, until she finally goes to her grave with the first string of beads given to her at birth.
The implication of this fable is that the wearing of beads is, in general, ritualistic. It was not. The general sequence is accurate, however. The Seminole female wears beads at a very early age and added to these from time to time until a large quantity had been amassed. As the women got older, they wore fewer beads - as vanity gave way to comfort and not to prescribed ritual. The vogue of necklace beads is still present among traditionally-minded women today, although the excess of earlier times has greatly diminished.
The Seminole man of this period wore a simple full cut shirt. A decorative area usually adorned the front placket. On his head, he wore a turban made from plaid wool shawls. These two garments, with the common addition of a (leather, woven yarn, or beaded) belt, completed the essentials of male attire.
During visits to town or in cold weather, additional items were worn. A colorful coat called a "long shirt" in the Seminole language, was embellished with ruffles. Vintage photographs attest to the popularity of this garment. It appears that every adult male would have owned one; yet, in past decades, the term "medicine man's coat" has been applied to these decorative shirts. Certainly no special rank or stature was originally applied to the wearer of these once common garments.
All of the garments previously mentioned were made predominantly of cotton material obtained from trading posts. Calicos were most common, but stripes, solids and plaids were also used.
Appliqué work was a decorative technique used on garments of this period. It was sewn on garments by hand and is structurally very different from the machine-sewn patchwork invented in the 20th century. Because of the time involved in its manufacture, appliqué work was used sparingly.
As early as 1880, the hand operated sewing machine made its appearance in Seminole camps. It would, in time, transform the appearance of Seminole clothing. By 1892, it was noted by an Everglades explorer that there were sewing machines in all the Seminole camps that he visited in Southeast Florida.
The sewing machine had little initial impact on clothing styles. Around 1900, this began to change. The man's basic shirt began to incorporate a cloth waist band as a "built in" belt. This belted shirt began to be tucked into trousers, later becoming the popular "Seminole jacket." The short ruffle on the woman's cape gradually increased in length. By 1920, it completely covered the blouse and extended nearly to the wrists. Capes of this length have continued to be a part of traditional Seminole attire though they are made now of sheer, near-transparent fabrics.
Clothing made just prior to 1920 has a further characteristic: Seminole seamstresses began to sew stripes of contrasting color into the garment. By 1920, both men's and women's clothing was patterned with horizontal stripes from top to bottom.