DALLAS — It was with some trepidation that Annette Becker chose the Old West’s influence on fashion as the subject of a spring exhibition commissioned by NorthPark Center.
“The biggest challenge was to strike a delicate balance with the narrative,” she reflected of the exhibition, called “West Dressed.” “It’s important to show that with American West and Native American identities, we don’t reference a specific point in history but instead work with these fantasies we’ve developed. When you are dealing with cultural appropriation in any form, it can put people on edge.”
Becker, who directs the voluminous Texas Fashion Collection at the University of North Texas, seized the opportunity to highlight visions of the American West interpreted by Native Americans as well as American and European designers.
She pulled ensembles by Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Zandra Rhodes, Lanvin and other notables from TFC’s archive of 20,000 pieces, but she had to go farther afield to secure modern styles by Native American designers.
Becker commissioned a gown from Marisa Mike, a Navajo designer who stitches strips of Pendleton wool blankets into body-conscious dresses. Becker also bought a cape, top and leggings featuring bold prints of beadwork by artist Jamie Okuma, whose work draws on her Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock heritage. Okuma is known in the industry for her elaborate beading of Christian Louboutin shoes and boots.
“West Dressed” displays 19 looks in the corridor facing Neiman Marcus at NorthPark and will be up through June 17.
It opens with an embroidered men’s shirt and pants that Stanley Marcus wore to Texas Centennial celebrations in 1936 and to a 1957 shindig for Coco Chanel that was held at his brother’s farm. Close by is a Mary Katrantzou frock that whimsically blends cowboy tropes: stars, chevrons and horses and country-western glitter.
The show also examines hippie chic styles of the late Sixties, bold geometric prints referencing Native American and other ethnic patterns, prairie-inspired looks of the Seventies and prints showcasing feathers, cacti and desert landscapes. It concludes with Okuma’s gown and a geometric-patterned Chanel knit dress that was shown in the Métiers d’Art collection that Karl Lagerfeld presented here in 2013.
Fashion’s periodic flirtation with Old Western style relates to cultural trends, Becker said.
“At different points in history we have different narratives about being American, and people find parts of those stories really appealing,” she said. “Right now people are interested in Western wear with ‘Make America Great Again,’ thinking about our claim to the land and embracing the space we have and making it productive. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, celebrating the bicentennial was really appealing.”
Many Western tropes derive from the garb of working class and impoverished people, and there is a fantasy to wearing it as fashion, she pointed out.
Becker understands this well. Having grown up on a cattle and wheat farm in Western Kansas, she was distressed by norm core style.
“My dad’s closet is full of muddy jackets, so seeing these scrawny kids wearing a Carhartt jacket and steel-toed boots — something so close and familiar to me — I don’t think you understand what you’re wearing,” she recalled. “That was an important moment for me as a white person to understand what cultural appropriation is and how frustrating it can feel.”