Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Squaw Dress, Part 1: It's All About the Dress

I wore my Squaw Dress, or Fiesta Dress as I like to call it, yesterday and someone asked me, "What is the origin of that dress?" It got me thinking, I knew a little about the history of these fun, comfy dresses but wanted to know more. So I've done some research on the internet and have decided to share it here with you. I am sure there is much more information out there, and more then I've given in the articles I read, however I decided to pick and choose what was interesting to me.
This is part one of three. The next two posts will be on an individual designer of fiesta dresses and a housewife turned career women due to her wonderful creations. Stay tuned.
It's All About the Dress
"the gay, comfortable and almost universally becoming..."
-The "Squaw" Dress's defining feature was a full, tiered skirt that came in three shapes:
    1. a slightly gathered skirt based on Navajo dress
    2. a "broomstick" or pleated skirt based on Navajo and Mexican attire
    3. a fully gathered, three-tiered skirt based on contemporary Western Appache camp dresses or Navajo attire
-The "Squaw" Dress was also know as the Fiesta, Kachina, Tohono or Patio dress, depending on type of decoration.
-They were most popular in the Southwest, where they most likely originated from.
-The dress complimented the patios and ranch type architecture of the lazy, carefree sunny Southwest.
-It gained popularity with eastern manufacturing houses and women's salons after a showing by New Mexico designers in the early 1950s.
-The "Squaw" dress found its greatest success between 1948 and 1958, which was quite long for a fashion trend.
-By 1953 national advertisement and articles existed about the "Squaw" dress. 
-The negative connotation of squaw was avoided by marketing the dress using the positive stereotype of the Indian Princess and turned her into a princess of the American West in her full, swirling skirt.
-The dress represented both idealized feminity (as we were moving away from the masculine look of the WWII) and Americanness (because of the Native American origin).
-The dress, however, did not require the New Look extreme of body contouring with minicorsets and petticoats; instead they relied on fabrics and decorative patterns as identifying features.
-They would become embellished with ribbon, rickrack, ruffles and sequins. Each tier had to be trimmed to be a true "Squaw" dress, and this became more important over time as designers sought individualized looks.
-First "squaw" skirts were "pleated" by being wrapped on broomsticks. A Navajo technique, whereby a wet skirt was bunched around a broomstick and tied to the stick tightly with string. Once dried the resulting accordion-style pleats created a unique controlled wrinkle. Later the skirts were encased in nylons, which quickened the dry time. Then later a "secret" method perfected the pleating technique.
-The fad was also easily spread because housewives could easily make them, resulting in several major pattern companies who produced various patterns for this new look. Textile manufacturers even created a special fabric called "squaw cloth."

 -Women typically would have 2-3 tops for one skirt, in order to create a variety of looks. The wardrobe could go from daytime to evening, summer or winter by simply changing the top.
-The "Squaw" outfit would often be accessorized with squash blossom necklaces and concho belts which were popular pieces in the Southwest.
 -In 1958, the fashion silhouette changed, rendering the "Squaw" dress old-fashioned except for at square dances and rodeos. Since that time the look of this trend has influenced designers in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
-The most famous of "Squaw" dress resurrection was when the "Santa Fe-style" became popular with its full, broomstick tiered skirts and concho belts, however the blouses were fuller and made of jersey knit of a solid color.
-The term "Squaw" has found itself linked to negative connotations in modern society, therefore I might illicit some negative feedback from identifying this dress as such. However, in my defense, this was the term that manufacturers and advertisers coined for this style of dress and thus I have referred to it as such.

Most of my information came from the following:
Parezo, Nancy J. and Jones,Angelina R.. "What’s in a Name? The 1940s–1950s 'Squaw Dress'.” 2009.
An article mostly about the symantics of the word "Squaw", but very interesting if you have the time.
Some of the information came from another article which will be featured more in another post.

Hope you've enjoyed and will come back for the next two parts!!!


  1. When my club, the Bombshells, hosted our annual event with Carlos and the Bandidos playing, we all wore squaw dresses. You can see it here:

  2. That's all so fascinating! Thank you for sharing. I love these dresses but don't have a single one in my closet! I think I'll have to add it to my sewing project list.

  3. YAY! Thank you, thank you for this post! So fantastic! That fourth photo down with the rick rack trim going making tiers on the dress is absolutely STUNNING! Ohhhh...I can't wait to make one of these!!

  4. Thank you so much for compiling this post! I have to admit, I don't know a whole lot about this particular trend in the 50s (I'm an east coaster--what can I say?! lol.), but have always admired it in photos and movies from the era. So neat!

  5. The biggest evidence that this was such a big trend is that there are still so many of these available and in wearable condition. My mother actually found 6 in a trunk in her attic that belonged to her husband's mother who had passed away 20 years ago.

  6. *Swoon* Carlos and the Bandidos!

  7. What a great post I love finding out the history of the fashions I love. Thanks for posting.

  8. Really fascinating! I love the Southwest and love these style of dresses. I wore one for our party the day after our wedding. We had some car trouble that day so not many good photos, but hopefully I can drum one up. :)

  9. I love what you have written! it must have taken you a long time to find out all this information...I own quite a few of these dresses and tops and absolutely love them!! I think some of your reader might like my info about mexican tourist skirts too - you can find it at my blog at
    hope you like it and thanks for your research!!!

  10. Oh my goodness! PERFECT! May I post you page on my Etsy page?