‘Native Fashion Now’ Comes to NYC

Native Fashion Now, the first large-scale traveling exhibit of modern Native American fashion, opened Feb. 17 at the National Museum of the American Indian in NYC. (Photo by Alejandra O’Connell for Voices of NY)

As Fashion Week comes to an end, so, coincidentally, does the tour of Native Fashion Now, the country’s first large-scale traveling exhibit of Native American Fashion. The collection of nearly 70 pieces, most of them modern work from Native American designers, now goes on display at the National Museum of the American Indian from Feb. 17 until Sept. 4.

Notwithstanding the museum setting, the vibrant works offer a sharp rejoinder to typical views of Native American dress and a telling rebuke to clothing designers and manufacturers who seek to appropriate cultural images.

“We are not just relics of the past, we are not just museum pieces to be admired,” said Martha Redbone, a singer of Cherokee, Shawnee, and Choctaw heritage who attended the exhibit’s press preview. “We are actually living, thriving people, artisans who have a message.”

Cultural appropriation of indigenous clothing and designs is commonplace in the fashion world. In 2012 model Karlie Kloss donned a feather headdress during a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. According to Walter Fleming, a professor of Native American Culture and History at the University of Montana, headdresses, or war bonnets, are very powerful status symbols in many native communities. “They have to be earned and are gender specific,” said Fleming.

The choice to have a female model casually parade with a war bonnet was seen as offensive and a backlash against Victoria’s Secret quickly ensued. According to Professor Fleming, embarrassment and pain could have been easily avoided if a designer or curator had simply spoken to a native person.

When U.K-based brand KTZ debuted its Fall/Winter collection during 2015 Fashion Week the pieces were described as tributes to indigenous peoples. But according to Adrienne Keene, creator of the blog Native Appropriations and Brown University professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies, KTZ clothing was inappropriate because of its misuse of Northern Cheyenne/Crow patterns. In her blog Keene states that the brand copied the work of native designer Bethany Yellowtail.

Boots by Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock designer, Jaime Okuma, are displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian. (Photo by Alejandra O’Connell for Voices of NY)

“Bethany’s design is not just a collection of abstract shapes, she utilized Crow beadwork that had been in her family for generations for her design, “ said Keene in her blog. “The colors, the shapes, and the patterns have meaning, origins, and history. They belong to the family and the tribe. They are cultural property, not designs just free for the taking.”

The curator of Native Fashion Now, Karen Kramer, wants the exhibit to show the diversity of native design. When the topic of Native American Fashion arises Kramer does not want people to immediately imagine buckskin and fringe.

“I want people to understand that Native fashion designers are defining for themselves what native fashion is and what native fashion can be,” said Kramer.

The exhibition has four themes—Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators, and Provocateurs. Each one reflects how designers are responding to ideas and trends in the Native Fashion world and native communities.

The artist behind the native-owned and operated clothing line OxDx, Jared Yazzie, is one of the featured artists and uses his T-shirts to promote activism. Black T-shirts with the words “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” and “Mis-Rep” hang in the exhibition – an attempt at rethinking history and breaking stereotypes.

“There are stories behind all of it,” said Yazzie in reference to patterns, like the Navajo basket design, he incorporates into his work. “Who better to tell it than native designers.”

One Comment

  1. Gloria O'Quinn says:

    Great article! A very interesting topic!

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