Although there have been many styles of clothing unique to the Cherokee people throughout the years, one style remains in vogue. The Cherokee tear dress is the standard traditional fashion for women, and the ribbon shirt remains popular for men.
The tear dress is believed to be the style of dress from the Trail of Tears era, when most women no longer had access to scissors due to the "removals" and the subsequent confiscation of most personal and household belongings. Thus,the material was ‘torn’ from larger bolt pieces. The name is equally proper whether pronounced ‘tear,’ as in Trail of Tears, or ‘tear,’ as in being torn fabric. The style of tear dress worn today was patterned after an actual dress stored for many years in a trunk.
Tear dresses are styled from a calico print material, with an applique pattern of diamonds on the yoke and around the skirt, just above the flounce. Some Cherokee seamstresses have modified the design to utilize triangles, circles, and even the sacred seven-sided star of the Cherokee.
The Trail of Tears era dresses had 3/4 length sleeves, which did not get in the way of dishes, grinding corn and nuts, and other household duties. It also had a skirt length of mid-calf, so as not to gather dirt or dew from the ground. Another feature was the button down top, a convenience for nursing infants. Little girl's’ dresses were usually fastened in the back. Today the tear dress has been modified to be worn floor length, except for Stomp Dance shell shakers, who usually wear calf-length tear dresses because of the shell shackles. The sleeves are often times worn full-length.
While the tear dress has remained unique to the Cherokee, the male ribbon shirt has become popular in many different tribes especially on the pow-wow circuit. The ribbon shirt is also made from calico fabric, with ribbon designs on the front and back. The sleeves are made similar to the tear dress. The traditional turban, also made from calico, is still worn by some men.
There are a variety of seamstresses who make both the female and male Cherokee clothing. Usually, measurements are taken for each individual. and no standard pattern per ‘dress size’ is required for an experienced seamstress. The tear dress is the official garment of “Miss Cherokee” and is worn on special tribal occassions, and sometimes even at weddings. Most Cherokee gospel singing groups also wear the tear dress and ribbon shirt, and they are the official dress of the Cherokee National Choir.