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The Buckskin Coat of the American West

The buckskin coat is an iconic symbol of the American West, verging on the cliche. Extant examples abound. Beautiful craftsmanship and elaborate decoration ensured the survival of many examples of high-end buckskins, but buckskin coats were not a luxury item. A curiosity, sure, but they were also versatile garments worn by indigenous, black, and European Americans throughout the history of post-colonial North America.

'Daguerreotype of Nathaniel Miller, California Pioneer' courtesy of Cowan Auctions, link below.

Hide clothing was an essential technological development, and likely predates human beings as we are, having been used in some form or other by our shared hominid ancestors. Animal skins properly tanned are insulating, durable, soft, and reparable.

I recently had the good fortune to collect a buckskin coat that dates to the Museum’s period of focus. We are very conscious of the fact that our “menswear” focus must expand well beyond the suits and cravats that we most associate with this period, and as such we maintain several example pieces that broaden dominant cultural perspectives of what a 19th century American wore. This buckskin coat is one such garment.

The coat is made of brain-tanned deerskin. The hide bears all the hallmarks of Indigenous harvest. A hunted deer would have been skinned in the course of butchering, the hide would have been scraped to remove clinging meat and fat, stretched, and dried to become rawhide. The stiff, dried skin was pounded with stones to remove the hair. After pounding, the hide would be soaked in a tanning solution made from the brains of the animal, among other things. Recipes varied from nation to nation and family to family, as they still do. Once the brain solution had fully penetrated the skin, the hide was worked. It was twisted, stretched, and wrung, laboriously and repeatedly until it was fully dried. The dried product is soft, supple, and strong. The leather was then smoked, which prevented it from reverting to rawhide if the leather were to become wet.

This description is thoroughly simplified. Brain tanning is an art, and I am no expert in the technique, but the explanation should suffice in broad strokes. This buckskin coat is made of the brain tanned skin of a deer and is sewn together completely by hand using sinew, or the connective tissues of the animal. With this coat, the sinew was probably taken from deer, most likely from the muscles along the spine. Sinew was dried and torn into threads, wetted in the mouth or in water, and rolled between the fingers into sturdy threads. The end of the sinew could be left rigid, like a needle, so it could be passed through stitching holes made with a steel awl in this case, but in the pre-colonial period it would have been bone.

Bone Awl from Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

The tanning method, construction methods and techniques, and the simple pattern all point to this jacket being made by Native Americans. Although, not all buckskin jackets were. Anglo tailors could procure native tanned hides, but their coats bear the unmistakable hallmarks of tailor-made construction. This coat does show evidence of Anglo influence in its patterning, which is like that of a sack coat. 

Early 1900s Crow Woman Sewing. Photo by Richard Throssel. University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center.

This coat is unusual in that it was once decorated, and the decoration was removed. Though the coat was doubtless made by native hands, the decoration was more likely done by a tailor. The coat shows evidence of ribbon or tape decoration that was applied by sewing machine, and the poor quality of the machine work indicates that it was likely decorated after the coat was assembled. The evidence of machine work lies in thousands of tiny perforations in the leather where the stitches once were. The stitch count, and evidence of variable tension during the stitching, indicates that the sewing was done on a mid-19th century machine. The work is unmistakable, and leads us to date this coat comfortably within the scope of our time period. At some point, the decorative application was removed, leaving a plain but striking utilitarian coat.

A few things stood out to us on examination of this fascinating piece. The collar seems to have been removed and the coat appears to have been shortened to its current length. The holes cut for a belt or sash are unusual when compared to other examples. The fringe is applied only for decorative purposes. Frequently, fringe on coats like this are also seam welts, to help seal the seams. Coats such as these make very good windbreakers, and welts keep the wind out. But this coat has the welts whipped to the surface of the hide instead.

Boy's Coat, possibly of Sihasapa Lakota origin, photos courtesy of The National Museum of the American Indian, link below.

This deerskin coat serves as an important example of an everyday buckskin coat that could have been worn by a native or settler. It has been upcycled and maintained throughout its life. It is in excellent overall condition and stands as a testament to the longevity of similar garments. Altogether an important piece of the American story, and a worthwhile addition to The Merchant Tailor Museum collection.


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