LONDON - At first glance this 1786 portrait by Gilbert Stuart may seem a little off piste for me, it’s true. But the feathers, the ribbons, the silver rings, the bangles – how could the Costumist not be seduced? Allow me to introduce the Mohawk Chieftain Thayendanegea, known to the Europeans as Captain Joseph Brant. You can read more about Brant’s life here (it’s fascinating) and see him in London before he is sold on 8 July at the Old Master & British Paintings Evening sale, but in short, he was a supreme war chief of the Iroquois Nation and a fearless warrior with exquisite manners.
While fighting in the American Revolution, he met the Englishman Earl Hugh Percy (soon to become the Duke of Northumberland). The two became transatlantic pen pals and remained solid chums forever onward. Adored by the Brits and famed as “King of the Mohawks,” Brant was an indefatigable campaigner for the preservation of Iroquois lands. This portrait was painted on his second trip to England, when he was hoping to drum up support from the king and various aristocratic pals. Brant was the ultimate foreign ambassador; his charm was magnetic, his intelligence alluring, and he knew all too well how to use his clothing to influence his audience.
Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of the Mohawk Chieftain Thayendanegea, Known as Joseph Brant. Estimate £1,000,000–1,500,000.
What do we expect when we imagine Mohawk style? No, stop thinking about Daniel Day-Lewis and Last of the Mohicans. It was mostly furs, animal hides, moccasins and feathers, yes, but that strip of hair running from forehead to nape was a Hollywood invention. The traditional Mohawk hairdo left just a square of hair on the crown, plaited into three short braids and embellished with feathers and the like. The rest of the scalp was not shaven but plucked out in tufts (shudder) because a) these guys were double hard and b) a 5 o’clock scalp shadow would really ruin the look.
Now, let’s look a minute at what Brant is wearing. Typical Mohawk getup, you say? Guess again. On the one hand, his headdress with its vivid feathers and porcupine quills are what we might expect of Native American clothing. The silver bangles, cuffs and little splangly rings appliquéd to the cap and across his shoulders, denoting his elevated Chieftain status, are exotic enough. But the two large medallions hanging from the Mohawk’s neck are in fact British. The silver, horseshoe-shaped gorget, a throwback to medieval armor, was a personal gift from the English monarch, George III and below that is a cameo portrait of the king himself.
Brant knew that the right clothes could get you in with the right people. The Mohawk Valley, where he grew up, was a hotchpotch of cultures and languages. Colonials and Native Americans lived side by side and regularly exchanged gifts to maintain the peace and renew their alliance. The Mohawk offerings were usually ceremonial gifts of furs and skins and the Europeans in turn brought manufactured wears like woolen fabrics and linens, ribbons, beads and shirts.
While the provincial Americans simulated English fashions, the Natives took the new clothing and made it their own, creating a whole new hybrid style. Instead of going bare-chested, for example, a Native might don an English linen shirt but, much to the horror of the Colonial women, pair it with a snazzy loincloth instead of trousers. Gift giving was an integral part of Mohawk culture, Native Americans attached special meaning to presents, accepting them as symbols of goodwill, reciprocity and friendship. Clothing was a vital diplomatic tool and dressing the part was faster than learning a language or adopting an accent and Brant was pretty nifty at this game. He could easily pull off a gentlemanly English suit, but would just as happily slip into full Mohawk garb for a trip to King George’s court to play the role of “noble savage.”
With this outfit, Brant simultaneously conveys pride in his Mohawk heritage and poignant hope that the crown will assist him in its preservation. Courageous warrior, Chief Thayendanegea and noble ambassador, Captain Joseph Brant at once, I take my hat off to this diplomatic costume chameleon.
Since the portrait stops at his shoulders though, we’ll never know whether he was matching that shirt with trousers or loincloth . . . You can think about Daniel Day Lewis again now.