When you think about Native Americans and fashion, your first thought may be — or at least mine was — beads. Wait, no. Feathers! No — buckskin with fringe. What’s more Native American than buckskin pants worn by some high-cheeked hunter about to shoot a deer?
Well, how about a Louis Vuitton arrow quiver?
That’s just one of the beautiful and unsettling items on display at Native Fashion Now, a traveling exhibit organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Step into it and you are surrounded by the kind of beauty and boundary-pushing you’d expect at a fashion show, not a powwow — and that’s the whole idea. Though most nonindigenous Americans may think of Native fashion as whatever the “bad guys” wore in some cowboys-and-Indians movie, Native Americans themselves have been designing chic clothing since at least the 1940s.
That’s when Lloyd Kiva New burst onto the scene. Trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cherokee designer went on to open a boutique in Scottsdale, Ariz., that was so popular you could buy his dresses in New York and Beverly Hills. As the years went on, he hobnobbed with the Kennedys. When New came out with a line of leather handbags inspired by Navajo medicine pouches, they were the Birkin bags of their day. Everyone wanted one.
His genius was to straddle both cultures. Though he used beads, yes, and Native symbols and colors, the dresses of his on display at the show are classic 1950s and ’60s silhouettes. Think of the first cocktail dresses Barbie wore — but hipper.
New pivoted in the early ’60s and opened the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., which to this day serves as an incubator for Native American fashion. Karen Kramer, curator of the Native Fashion Now exhibit, goes to the annual Indian Market there, which has grown to a gathering of 1,000 artists. Though the market had always held a “traditional clothing” contest, Kramer said, “I started noticing more and more contemporary Native fashion making its way onto the scene.”
That was the inspiration for this show. “There are a lot of things in this show that might not look quote-unquote ‘Native American,’” Kramer said. “But why is that? Everything in the show is Native American, so it should look Native whether there are symbols and patterns you recognize or not.”
Most of the clothes are simply strikingly gorgeous.
For instance, there’s an Oscars-worthy gown of orange and black swirls accompanied by a spiky headdress made of, as it turns out, porcupine quills. The ensemble is worn with a short cape of shiny black feathers, which is as sexy as it is stunning.
Then there’s the “Old Time Floral Elk Tooth” dress, by Bethany Yellowtail. A sheer black sheath covers a tight ivory-colored mini-dress. The sheath is decorated with elks’ teeth, which Kramer says were the epitome of wealth and style among the Apsaalooke people — also known as the Crow. That’s because only two teeth per elk are ivory and considered suitable for adornment. On the dress, they form an outline that is sleek and slightly scary.
But not all the items on display are meant for the red carpet. In a section of the exhibit titled “Activators,” Kramer highlights designer-activists. “Native Americans Discovered Columbus,” says a T-shirt that manages to flip history on its head. Jared Yazzie, of Dine (aka Navajo) heritage, designed that shirt to protest Columbus Day.
As with all the clothes in Native Fashion Now, the shirt is a startling reminder of the fact that like America itself, American style has been around for thousands of years. It just keeps evolving.
Skenazy is author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”