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Myth of the Cherokee Tear Dress


The Myth of the Cherokee Tear Dress

By : Pitter Glinda Ladd Seabaugh

The Tear Dress is often referred to as being the style of dress that was worn on the Trail of Tears. It is said that as
the women were taken to Indian Territory that after their arrival they were given cotton fabric but were not given
scissors. So the material had to be torn by hand to make the dresses. I have also heard the story as to how the
dresses were patterned after the prairie girls but that the Cherokee girls put patch work diamonds on the shoulders
and around the bottom of the dress so the men could tell them a part from the white girls at a far glance into the

As shocking as it may seem, these stories are only a myth. I was totally shocked and in disbelief when a few
weeks ago as I was surfing the net and decided to see what was new on the Official Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma
web site. To my amazement under the tidbit section they reported that the Cherokee Tear Dress was designed in
1975. 1975!! Why thats only about 25 years old! So I quickly called the tribal office after being directed to the right
people I was told by a young man there, that yes this is about right, that the dress is very new! The dress was made
the official tribal dress by proclamation by the National Council around 1975. So this really got my attention and I
found myself doing some research. I read everything I could find on this dress, and let me tell you there was not
much to be found! The culture Center at the Cherokee Nation tells us that the dress is believed to be the style of
dress from the Trail of Tears era and that the style of dress worn today was patterned after an actual dress stored
for many years in a trunk, and believed to be from the Trail of Tears era.

They go on to say that the dresses are styled from calico print material, with an applique pattern of diamonds on the
yoke and around the skirt, just above the flounce with 3/4 length sleeves.


After checking further I found out that the original Cherokee Tear Dress actually came about after the embarrassment
of a young Cherokee woman, by the name of Virginia Stroud, who had been chosen as Miss Indian American. After
winning this honor she was crowned wearing a Kiowa buckskin dress she had borrowed from a college friend. A group
of Cherokee ladies was embarrassed that unlike other tribes, the Cherokee did not have a traditional dress. They felt it
was unacceptable for a Cherokee woman who was representing the Cherokee people in public events to be dressed
as a Kiowa. So they took the problem to the Cherokee Chief of that time, which was W.W. Keeler. They quickly
decided to design a dress that would be historically correct, but unlike any other tribe, not wanting it to look like a
plains dress.

They all started searching for the right dress design that would be uniquely Cherokee and be acceptable to the Chief.
After much research and finding nothing one of the ladies, Marie Waddle, had remembered seeing a dress in her
grandmothers old trunk. After much discussion among the ladies and Chief, they thought yes this would work, so they
took this dress and redesigned it somewhat and came up with the official Cherokee Tear dress. This dress would serve
them well for the Miss Indian America to wear as a representative of the Cherokee people and also giving the Tribe a
dress to call their own.

After much consideration, it was decided that they needed to complete the outfit so the women made two
calf-length white turkey feather capes, while Cherokee artist, Willard Stone designed and made a crown of copper to
represent the style and material of the ancient Cherokee and to signify the womens importance in nurturing and
teaching the next generation.

Over the next ten years, each Miss Cherokee were required to wear the official copy of both the feather cape and
crown in all public events for their reigning year. Eventually the feathered cape was retired to the Cherokee National
Museum. The shape and style in the first cooper crown has since been copied and interpreted by many other Indian
tribal groups for their Indian Princesses. These can be seen at many pow-wows today.

So to sum it all up I guess we can say that the Tear dress as lovely as it is, is not an old traditional dress, the style itself
was not even worn historically until about the 1850s long after the Trail of Tears. I talked with Lisa La Rough From the
Cherokee Nation Cultural Center in Okalahoma, and she again verified that the dress was indeed designed in
1975 and that the applique pattern of diamonds and rounded neck of the dress was added to the original square
neck dress found in the trunk. Today, the dress has been modified to be worn floor length and sometimes worn with
long sleeves instead of the official 3/4 length sleeves. The dress is not made with a pattern and is simply constructed of
squares and rectangles.

Today you will sometimes see at pow-wows a tear dress with rows of ribbons instead of the reverse applique diamonds
as in the Authentic Tear Dress, this is not an authentic Tear Dress. As stated by Wendell Cochran, National Living
Treasurer in the Area of traditional Cherokee Clothing and enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Okalahoma
stated that this dress is like the difference between a Corvette and the official lead car at the Indy 500. They both
started with the same basic design and assembly method, but the Lead Car is supped-up and has a lot of racing strips
and decals plus better upholstery and gadgets inside. He summed it up by saying that the Ribbons are the lazy
women's way of making more money by doing less work.

As stated by Wendell, The worst Tear Dresses are those that people try to make from that wicked historical
reproduction pattern company that seems to be available at every pow-wow I have ever attended. Tandy Leather
Company also carried the same line. I have some choice but not printable thoughts about their other garment
patterns too. Especially the mens Indian and Frontier garb. They should be sued for defective product liability and I
would love to see the Cherokee Nation get damages for their fraudulent misrepresentation of the term Cherokee
Tear Dress. By no stretch of the imagination could a person make a tear dress from the pattern or the instructions.
Sadly, I have had to express wonder at some strange fitting garments that were proudly worn by some uninformed,
but ethnically prideful Cherokee descendants who trotted them selves down to the Cherokee Nation Holiday from
Kansas City or Des Moines. In not a few cases, it was maddening to find out that they paid fairly large sums to their
local professional dressmakers to stitch their dresses up because they simply didnt understand the instructions after
they had bought the fabric and the pattern.

Sorry Souls that they are, I have no heart to point out the inaccuracies of the miss guided intentions to appear
historically authentic. My heart goes to the local Cherokees who produce beautifully made tear dresses and willing to
make them for far less than the labor and attention the detail deserve.

Thank you Mr. Cochran, I couldnt have said it better!

Mr. Wendell Cochran is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Okalahoma. In 1989, the Tribe and the
Cherokee National Historical Society awarded Mr. Cochran the title of Master Craftsman and National Living Treasurer
in the Area of Traditional Cherokee Clothing.

Even though the Cherokee Tear Dress is not an Old traditional dress and has been misleading to some degree with
all the glamorous stories being attached to it. We must still thank these ladies, Wynona Day, Marie Waddle and the
other ladies on the Cherokee committee for giving us a much needed beautiful dress that the Cherokee ladies can
wear today to be able to set us apart from all the other tribes! It is a very beautiful, durable Cherokee dress, one
that we should wear with pride.

by: Pitter

Information gathered from:

Lisa La Rogh, Cherokee Nation Okalahoma

Myrtle Driver, Cherokee Nation, North Carolina

Wendell Cochran, Tahlequah OK

Houston Museum

A Victorian Elegance

Victorian Womens Fashion in America

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