Some of the most detailed descriptions of Powhatan people concerns their appearance. According to John Smith, the native Virginians were "Generally tall and straight," an observation confirmed by archeological analysis, which estimates that the average Powhatan stood at about six feet. William Strachey, another 17th-century author, recorded that Powhatans were "Generally of a cullour brown or rather tawny."
Costume varied according to sex, age and status. The most common article of apparel for men was a breech-clout of skin worn between the thighs. According to Smith, "The common sort have scarce to cover their nakedness but with grasse, the leaves of trees, or such like. . . The better sort use large mantels of deare skins not much different from the Irish mantels." A man of high status might wear a shirt-like garment made of fringed deerskin or a mantle of turkey feathers. The hair was shaven from the right side of the head (to reduce the risk of entanglement in the hunter's bowstring); the hair on the other side of the head was allowed to grow long and often pulled into a knot and decorated with everything from shells to the dead hand of an enemy. Men used body paint in preparation for war or games.
Werowances (chiefs) wore fine clothes and many ornaments of pearl, rare shell beads and copper, the precious metal of the Powhatans. George Percy described the headdress of one werowance: "a crown of deares haire colloured red, in fashion of a rose fastened about his knot of haire, and a great plate of copper on the other side of his head; with two long feathers in fashion of a pair of horns placed in the midst of his Crowne."
In his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), colonist Robert Beverley opined that Powhatan Indian "women are generally beautiful, possessing an uncommon delicacy of shape and features." The skirt was the ubiquitous garment for women; those of higher-status swathed themselves in fringed deerskin. The hair of a married woman was worn long and plaited in the back; a young girl had her head on the front and sides shaven close, with the rest of the hair growing long and braided down the back.
George Strachey remarked at length on the use of tattooed decorations by the Powhatan Indian women, commenting that they "have their armes, breasts, thighes, shoulders, and faces, cuningly ymbrodered with divers workes, for pouncing and searing their skyns with a kind of instrument heated in the fier. They figure therein flowers and fruits of sondry lively kinds, as also snakes, serpents."
Information taken from: "The Powhatan Indian World" from the Colonial National Historical Park National Park Service: Historic Jamestowne
Pictures are available from the Native American Technology and Art Regional Overview of Native American Clothing Styles Northeast Region – Mid-Atlantic Tribes.