A traveling exhibit of North American Indian fashion has arrived at its final stop. “Native Fashion Now” is now on display at The National Museum of the American Indian New York in downtown Manhattan, highlighting contemporary indigenous fashion designers. The exhibit was originally launched at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., in November 2015.
“At the time that I dreamed this up, contemporary Native fashion was really undergoing a major upsweep in the world,” said Karen Kramer, the show’s curator and curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture at Peabody Essex Museum. “When I started my research for the show, there were the usual sorts of celebrity gaffes if you will, and sort of this mass consumption of a Native style and Native designs that you see in mainstream fashion, but hardly any of it was being produced by Native designers themselves,” she continued. “This exhibition really fills that pressing need for Native artists and designers to represent themselves, and represent their communities themselves, and to celebrate their voice and creativity.”
The exhibit includes around 70 works from 67 Native designers and artists, organized into four distinct, yet fluid, sections: “Pathbreakers,” “Revisitors,” “Activators,” and “Provocateurs.” Although the show includes pieces from the Fifties onward, the bulk of the exhibit is focused on designs from the latter part of the 20th century and 21st century. Designs range from a Kent Monkman quiver, painted in a Louis Vuitton monogram print, to items bearing political messages, including Jared Yazzie’s T-shirts “Native Americans Discovered Columbus OXDX.” Kramer worked with a team of both Native and non-Native advisers and scholars while organizing the show and choosing which aspects to highlight.
“With contemporary Native fashion, I think there’s more of an emphasis now on street style and expressing politics through clothing. And while that has always been a part of Native visual culture, I think it’s more accessible and in-your-face with the contemporary street style,” said Kramer. “I think technology definitely contributes to that. I think social media has played a big role in Native designers getting out there, and getting a warm reception.”
The “Revisitors” section of the exhibit includes pieces that build on the idea of tradition; however, the exhibit stands in contrast to Native stereotypes. “I think the word ‘traditional’ is a little bit tricky, because in Native American cultures, the only tradition in art is that things change,” said Kramer. “With the sort of more time-honored clothing, the thing is there is still some experimentation with materials and color schemes. But, in 19th century Native clothing and textile design, there are tighter conventions that artists and designers adhere to. And I think that’s sort of what got cemented in Hollywood — it’s the fringe, it’s the beads, it’s the buckskin,” she continued. “Contemporary Native fashion uses that as a platform, but then expands on that.”
Appropriation of Native culture is not a new discussion within the fashion industry — and it’s not always a discussion led by criticism. For designer Patricia Michaels, who garnered attention while a contestant on reality show “Project Runway,” Isaac Mizrahi’s 1991 “Totem Pole Dress” served as a source of inspiration.
“She was so thrilled when she saw Naomi Campbell wearing that dress, walking down the catwalk, she said, ‘Oh my gosh, if the world loves what Mizrahi’s doing, and if he’s doing this with Native design, I can do that, too,'” said Kramer. “And so, for her, it was really this moment where it solidified her resolve to become a fashion designer. For every person that is offended by something, there’s another person who isn’t,” she continued. “It opens up this conversation on creativity and cultural borrowing, appropriation, and that sort of thing. It’s not always a black-and-white issue.”
“Native Fashion Now” is on view through September 4, 2017.