Ethnic Clothing and Costume: Native American Regalia

Figure 1.--

The principal meaning of the word costume is the style of clothing or dress , including ornamentation and hair styles, pertaining to a nation, class, or period. One of the subsiduary definitions is of a kind of pretend dress worn by actors and children. Native Americans generally object to the use of "costume" to describe their clothing and regalia as they tend to believe the latter definition is how the word is often indended.


A Native American dancer's clothing is Regalia--not a costume in the sence of a pretend outfit. It is a prized possession. Some regalia has been handed down through the generations, and is priceless. When a dancer decides to "come out" in a particular style, the regalia reflects the spirit and customs of the people being honored. This is no small decision, and a "coming out" ceremony for a new dancer is cause for a great celebration. The regalia is handmade, usually by the dancer, friends and family, and every article has special meaning. It takes years to collect the items until the regalia is complete, and this involves no small expense. Powwow visistors should take care to not ever touch a dancer's regalia without permission. The regalia is an expression of spirit, and has been prayed over and blessed. Honor it, the person wearing it, and the living history it represents.

Native American Comment

A HBC reader, L. Deer, has contacted us to stress the following, "Just in case you didnt know. It's very offensive to Native Americans to call thier outfits 'costumes'. A costume is something you dress up in to pretend to be someone your not. Native outfits, or regalia, are very sacred and traditional to native peoples. It's a disgrace to them for people to say that thier traditional clothing is 'costumes'. To the white man, it may look like a costume, but to all native americans it is our sacred traditional regalia, with very spiritual values and meanings." He stresses, "I'm only letting you know what the word means to ALL NATIVE AMERICANS. I just thought I'd share with you how All natives feel about using the word costume. I'm not speaking for only my own belief on this ... I speak for ALL NATIVE AMERICANS OF AMERICA."

HBC Approach

HBC in writing this page had generally avoided the term costume for the reasons expressed and after receiving the above message has reviewed our Native American pages and replaced "costume" in the few instances that we had used it. For example, we had used "costume" to describe the outfits worn by Cub and Boy Scouts for Native American dancing exhibitions. We decided to even replace it here. We certainly do not want to offend our Native American readers and there are other words that can be used without any loss of clarity. We have received messages from other readers asking us to in effect change or alter history or to avoid certain topics. This we will not do. This is not the case here and we have thus deleted the word "costume" from our discussion of Native American apparel and regalia.

Dictionary Definitions

HBC stresses, however, that the word "costume" as a kind of pretend dress for movies and theatrical productions or for childre's play is not the principal meaning of the word in the English language. Our American College Dictionary defines costume as "the style of dress, including ornaments and the way of wearing the hair, esp. that peculiar to a nation, class, or period." Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary has a similar definition, "The prevailing fashion in coiffure, jewelry, and apparel of a period, country, or class."

The Native American reader mentioned above asks, "When a preist puts his sacred robe on to preach ... would you call it a costume? When the arabs put their turbans on for head coverings for religious reasons ... are they called costumes? When women put on panyhose for work or church .... is this a costume? Are suits and ties costumes? No, it's the traditional wear of the peoples of America. Well the clothes that natives wear are the tradional wear of the first people of America."

Here HBC has to take issue with our Native American reader. HBC would not refer to a priest's vestments as "costume" because they are not garments which relate to a "nation, class, or period". (Of course priest's may be considered a class of people and then the word "costume" could be used.) HBC would, however, use "costume" to refer to Arab turbans and women's pantyhose or other female garments as well as men's suit and ties. Arab's are a nationality. Men and women are a class of people. Do an internet or library search and you will find hundreds if not thousands of references to women's costumes, meaning fashion of clothing--not pretend clothing. I just did a Google search on women's costumes as a test and the result was 71,600 sites! A library search will also turn up large numbers of books and both popular and scholarly articles addressing "costume" in the sence of clothing and fashion.

Christopher Wagner

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Satellite sites] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing ethnic pages:
[Return to the Main ethnic page]
[Return to the Main Native American ethnic page]
[German] [Greek] [Irish] [Scottish]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Native American pages:
[Ethnic] [Dance]

Created: March 26, 2002
Last updated: March 26, 2002