Prior to the first arrival of Europeans in North America in the sixteenth century, Native Americans had traded with neighboring tribes for centuries. Their cultures valued unusual items brought from afar. Often these items, such as coastal shells traded in the landlocked Northeast, were used in the prized garments of the wealthy. When Europeans arrived on the coasts of the continent, Native Americans began to adopt European items into their clothing styles. Some of the first European, or Western, items used by Native Americans were glass beads and stroud cloth, a cheap heavy wool fabric dyed blue, red, or green and made in Stroudwater, England. By the early 1800s calico and gingham cotton cloth was also popular among Native Americans. At first, Native Americans used Western items as raw material to craft clothing in their traditional styles. Later they would embellish Western styles with beaded decoration or silver ornaments, or use Western styles in their own ways, by cutting the seat out of trousers to make leggings or sewing buttons on a garment for decoration instead of as fasteners, for example. But as more white settlers encroached on their homelands and eventually forced tribes onto reservations (public land set aside for Native Americans to live), Native Americans slowly discontinued their traditional dress for ready-made Western style clothes.

The tribes of the Southeast were among the first to adopt Western clothing. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Spanish, French, and English explorers brought items for trade. By the early 1800s the tribes of the Southeast wore jackets, shirts, cravats, or ties, cotton cloth skirts, and shoes purchased in stores or at trading posts. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Huron of the Northeast, who had a long history of trading with whites, had discontinued wearing all of their traditional tribal dress. By the mid-nineteenth century most Native Americans in the regions of the present-day United States wore commercially produced Western style clothes, expect for a few ceremonial garments. However, many of the isolated peoples of the Subarctic and the Arctic continued wearing some of their traditional clothes. Although many adopted Western style trousers and jackets, some preferred the warmth of their traditional fur anoraks, or parkas.

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