Native Fashion – Cross Cultural Boundary Shattering

The Messenger (The Owl), Margaret Roach Wheeler (Chicksaw) cape and headpiece, silk-wool year, metal, silver, glass beads and peacock feathers.

February and March bring us reports of fashion shows from New York, Paris, Milan, London… all of which have bragging rights, but they may meet their match in some of the garments and accessories on display at the Museum of the American Indian, in the fabulous new show, Native Fashion Now .  Divided into four parts (Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators, Provacateurs) the exhibit features over 60 pieces of contemporary clothing, jewelry and footwear designed by Native Americans. While many reference traditional sources and design, they are adapted to today’s materials and sensibilities. The pieces are all about the creation that happens when cultures collide, bringing forth something new but that still has heritage at its foundation.  The craftsmanship is exquisite.  As an embroiderer, I was immediately drawn to the beaded pieces, of which there are many splendid ones.

The first gallery – Pathbreakers  features the work several trailblazers, such as Frankie Welch (Cherokee), who dressed First Lady Betty Ford, and Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), who you may recognize from the 2013 season of Project Runway.  You’ll also find dresses by Cherokee designer Lloyd “Kiva” New, whose custom clothing and accessories in the 1940‘s and ’50’s were part of mainstream (as opposed to “ethnic”) fashion, combining Native imagery with modern silhouettes and palettes. New housed his studio in an artisan-run boutique complex in Scottsdale Arizona, and sold his fashions in high-end boutiques and through Neiman Marcus.  He was the first Native designer to show in international fashion exhibition in the 1950’s.  This dress is his variation on Dior’s “New Look.”

1950’s dress, Lloyd “Kiva” New, (Cherokee) screen-printed cotton


Maria Samora (Taos  Pueblo) created this stunning Lily Pad bracelet of 18 carat gold, palladium white gold and diamonds, in a design that is a total break with the turquoise and silver that defined “Native” design for so long.

Lily Pad bracelet, Maria Samora (Taos Pueblo) gold, palladium white gold, and diamonds


In the Revisitors section you’ll find hats, parasols, dresses by designers who incorporate and reinterpret Native symbols in their work, or use new materials while maintaining a traditional aesthetic.  Be sure to visit the room to the right of this section, where you’ll find lots of fabulous bead work like the belt by Niio Perkins below.

Belt from Emma Ensemble, Niio Perkins (Akwesasne Mohawk) cotton, velvet, glass beads, metal pins


Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) transformed a pair of Christian Louboutin boots, completely covering them in a design of swallows and flowers reminiscent of her childhood, using beads from the 1880’s which she hand stitched over the course of hundreds of hours.

Boots, designed by Christian Louboutin, France, beadwork Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone-Bannock)


This Old Time Floral Elk Tooth Dress, by Bethany Yellowtail, (Apsaalooke (Crow)/ Northern Cheyenne) is a knock-out, combining elements of heritage – elk teeth are the epitome of Apsaalooke wealth, while the leather appliqués hearken back to Crow and Nez Perce floral motifs – with the thoroughly “fashion” underdress and lace overlay.

Old Time Floral Elk Tooth Dress, Bethany Yellowtail, (Apsaalooke (Crow)/Northern Cheyenne)


The Activators section features younger artists, many of whom use fashion to express their political views or to raise awareness of issues affecting Native communities.

One of my favorites is the tee-shirt by Dustin Martin (Diné [Navajo]) with it’s image of a Colt .45 revolver below which is the inscription:  “Ceci n’est pas un conciliateur”  a play on Renee Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – but the kicker is in the explanation on the bottom near the hem:

This is Not a Peacemaker, Dustin Martin, (Diné [Navajo])

THIS IS NOT A PEACEMAKER”  The “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” was adopted as the standard military service revolver from 1873-1892.  Nicknamed “The Peacemaker”, Samuel Colt’s revolutionary side arm was used by Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry during the Great Sioux War of 1876.  On June 25th, Custer and 267 of his men were killed when they engaged a combined force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors desperate to protect their families camped alongside the Little Bighorn River.  Let by the likes of Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, these sovereign original land owners understood that the implement on Custer’s hip meant anything but peace.  RESIST THE HYPE.

Provacateurs contains one-of-a kind items, that push tradition into the realm of experimental, and are sometimes used to provoke thinking on charged subjects such as colonialism and sexism, or the influence of technology.

Sho Sho Esquiro (Kasha Dene/Cree) has created an elegant evening gown of surprising materials:  rooster feathers, seal, beaver tail and carp, as well as silk and beads, displaying a very skillfully tailored garment.  Hailing from Canada’s Yukon region, Esquiro knows the importance of clothing that is well sewn and constructed.  This garment is from her “Day of the Dead” series, meant to be worn by her departed loved ones at an imagined reunion.  The clothing in this series also takes inspiration from the Mexican holiday of the same name.  I really like the animal skull and tulle fascinator by Dominique Hanke (British).

Wlle, Wile, Wile dress, Day of the Dead Collection, Sho Sho Esquiro (Kaska Dene/Cree) seal, beaver tail, carp, beads, sik, rayon, rooster feathers; skull and tulle fascinator by Dominique Hanke (British)


Brothers David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Diné [Navajo]/Picuris Pueblo) have created a new take on that glamour standard bearer, the feather boa, crafting an accessory for the 21st century (from stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint and feathers) that captures all the attitude of its more malleable predecessor.  Try wearing this on the subway – even jaded New Yorkers would look twice! The  Gunmetal Pleat dress by  Consuelo Pascual (Diné [Navajo]/Maya) fashioned from organza recalls the aesthetics of Paco Rabanne and Courrèges, but takes them to a new level.

Postmodern Boa, David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin; Gunmetal Pleat dress, Consuelo Pascual


There’s a lot more to see in Native Fashion Now  (more photos are on my Instagram feed) so get over to the Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green before it closes on September 4th.   The catalogue (written for the exhibit when it originated at the Essex Peabody Museum) that accompanies the show is fabulous!

The Museum is hosting two events in conjunction with the exhibit:

On Thursday, April 20th, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm, The Power of Native Design an evening of fashion and music, and you can hear the personal stories of designers Dorothy Grant (Haida), Jamie Okuma (Luiseno/Shoshone Bannock), Bethany Yellowtail (Apsaalooke/Northern Cheyenne) and others.  Admission is free!

On Saturday, April 22nd, an all-day symposium, Native/American Fashion: Inspiration, Appropriation and Cultural Identity, will bring together Native and non-Native historians, fashion designers and artists working in the fields of fashion, law and indigenous studies, addressing  fashion as a creative endeavor and an expression of cultural identity, issues of problematic cultural appropriation, and offering examples of creative collaborations and best practices between Native designers and fashion brands. The symposium is co-sponsored with the Fashion Institute of Technology. Admission is free!