History of the Navajo Blouse

The traditional clothing often associated with Navajo women and girls evolved from the post-Civil War days of the late 19th century, and was influenced by white American dress of the time: a high-necked, tight-fitting velveteen blouse with a long and very full gathered skirt, often in a contrasting calico print or solid color.

The Navajo people lived a nomadic life in the deserts of the Southwestern U.S. until the early Spanish settlers came with the horse, and later sheep. Tending flocks, the Navajo settled, and developed their weaving of rugs and blankets, which today are important icons of their culture. They also became master silversmiths, and their jewelry and buttons embellish much of their clothing.

In the 1800s, the Navajo came into conflict with the western expansion of the white man, and continual incidents of violence culminated in 1864, when Kit Carson was sent to “teach the Indians a lesson.” Carson’s tactics included destroying crops, killing sheep, taking horses, and finally driving the starving survivors into canyons.

After some months, most of the survivors either surrendered or were captured, and forced to march (in The Long Walk) 400 miles to a reservation near Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. The purpose of this reservation, called Bosque Redondo, was to convert the Navajo to the white man’s ways of peace and Christianity, to “live in the manner of white men.” However, the project was doomed by food shortages, and disease, as well as the fact that the Navajo were being held against their will, far from their homeland.  In 1867, the project’s failure was recognized, and the people were allowed to return to their native lands in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona.

This Navajo Blouse and Skirt pattern may be traced back to Bosque Redondo. Before Spanish influence, Navajo women wore animal hides and skirts and shoes woven from yucca fibers.  After the Spanish introduced churro sheep and the vertical loom, typical dress evolved to a large handwoven blanket with a hole in the center to slip over the head and two holes for arms, much like a poncho. A wide strap around the waist, covered with silver and turquoise jewelry, secured the blanket over rough skin leggings and moccasins. These blankets were often brightly colored and beautifully decorated. This style dress was called a biil

While held captive at Bosque Redondo, their sheep taken from them, the Navajo could no longer weave, and their old clothing began to fall apart. At the same time, the women and girls went to work as servants for the military families in their homes surrounding the reservation. There, they saw, and were influenced by, the current fashions of the wives and daughters of the soldiers. Hand-me-downs and cast-offs were given to them to replace their tattered wool clothing.

The skilled Navajo seamstresses began to use the new machine-woven fabrics of calico and velvet. They used the sewing patterns of the white women: the full skirts and tight bodices of that period, typically of bright colors, with leg-of-mutton sleeves (the sleeve tucks on our Blouse remind us of this style), and pleated ruffled skirts. The women took an American clothing style and made it uniquely Navajo. Traditionally, Navajo skirts are 3-tiered, representing the different times of a woman's lifespan: infancy, adult, and elder years.

Folkwear customer in a Navajo Blouse and Skirt she made. 

When the Navajo left the Bosque Redondo reservation, they were able to reproduce these styles with the velvets and calicos available in the newly-established trading posts of the 1870s and 1880s. Women continued to adorn themselves with silver jewelry of all kinds, including coins from Mexico and America, which could be pulled off and used as money, if necessary.

Today, the Navajo recognize that their habits and customs are being broken down by tourism, mining, military service, and the assimilation. Against great odds, they struggle to preserve what is left to them of their culture.