Short shirts make up an unusual and little known group of garments that by the early nineteenth century began to enjoy widespread distribution on the Plains and eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains--though by no means were they ever common. The genre might have gotten its start as the various tribes transitioned to an equestrian lifestyle. Prior to this time, much longer shirts that reached to the knee were the norm. (See Thomas and Ronnefeldt, 1976: 67, 219.) However, such a length was a liability for riding horseback. By mid-century Plains shirts in general became noticeably shorter, most reaching mid-thigh. They, along with the type that has come to be known as the "short shirt" would have been considerably more logical and comfortable for a rider to be dressed in while mounted. Taking into account the long hours that men in particular regularly spent in the saddle, this reduction in shirt length was a significant development. Nonetheless, the especially abbreviated length of short shirts lent an unusual aspect to the garments. The sleeves typically extend barely to the elbow, and the bottom margin reaches to a point above the waist. Yet the shirt body is ample enough to fit the wearer's torso.
Evidence exists to suggest that for one particular group, a certain individual's vision or personal medicine gave rise to "short shirts." (See Powell, 1988:pls. 3, 4, and Wildschut, 1960: fig. 16.) However, their use was so widespread that this account was more likely a very localized phenomenon. It is noteworthy that numbers of short shirts are sized to fit a boy. Surprisingly, most short shirts are fully beaded. Perhaps this fact evidences their use primarily for formal or ceremonial occasions. The body and sleeves of this shirt are constructed of native-tanned buffalo hide, and the seams and the lane stitch beadwork all executed with sinew. The motifs--horse track designs boldly worked, undoubtedly related in some manner to equestrian pursuits, or perhaps combat deeds on part of the wearer or a member of his family, given the fact that the shirt belonged to a youth.
In structure and decoration, this shirt very closely resembles an example attributed to the Jicarilla, and published by Norman Feder. (See Feder, 1965:fig. 20.) The tailoring strongly suggests an Apache origin. The neck tabs are triangular in shape, but more importantly, lanes of alternating black and white beaded squares serve as borders throughout the garment. Rows of small black and white blocks along the margins of design fields is a uniquely Apache feature in beadwork as well as parfleche painting. Some might find fully beaded objects from the Apache to be out of the ordinary. However, the Jicarilla in particular (like their Southern Ute neighbors) produced objects with large areas of beadwork, including fully beaded moccasins, along with wide strips for dress yokes, and men's leggings and shirts. The two primary shades of blue, used here en masse for the background, were the most popular of bead colors for many Indians. Today this range of blue shades is popularly referred to as pony trader blue. The use of pony beads throughout suggests that this shirt was likely constructed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
Benson L. Lanford November 11, 2005