December 10, 2015

Native Fashion Now: Spotlighting and Celebrating a Movement

I think it's fair to say that, when we look at Native fashion, we are experiencing an 'Indigenous spring' moment: for lack of a better phrase, it's an exciting and rejuvenating creative cultural explosion moment. New artists are constantly emerging while more established designers are reaching greater heights. I get to witness it firsthand as I meet fresh faces and celebrate great accomplishments with others. But this moment is part of a longer Native fashion movement. I just returned from the East Coast where I reconnected with over 20 Native American designers who were featured in the new Peabody Essex Museum exhibit, Native Fashion Now, which spans 50 years and includes over 70 designers.

I was so excited for the VIP opening, which happened on November 18th in Salem, MA. In the hours leading up to the launch, I think I said, "I'm so excited" over a dozen times. It was a huge moment. Validation comes in many forms and in many ways, and all are important to acknowledge (and, hey, to celebrate!), and to have such a prestigious institution such as the PEM create a feature exhibit focusing solely on Native American-made fashion was a huge validating moment.

Yes, yes, I know that we, as Native people, shouldn't be looking to outside entities to validate us, and, in general, I don't think we do. For the truly enriching, spirit-satisfying validation, we look to our communities for that. A nod from a tribal leader, a write-up in the local newspaper, a message from a Native teen, a hug from your antie, an Eagle feather from your dad, a high-five from your cousin. Most, if not all, of the artists with whom I work will place community validation over validation from any pop culture or mainstream source. Yet, because we are such a small population - a tiny fraction of the US or Canadian population - garnering broad-reaching recognition is absolutely critical in our basic battle to let the world know that we are still here. And Native Fashion Now does that, with style.

Oh, and the topic of fashion! Let me tell you, it's rife with such delightful comments as "That's not fashion," "Fashion isn't art," "Fashion is art!" "Fashion is utilitarian," "Fashion is frivolous," "Fashion is expensive," "Fashion is just a trend," "Fashion is something we all engage in," "Fashion is for the rich," "Fashion is elitist," "Fashion is democratic," "Fashion is for women," "Fashion is global," "Fashion is destructive," "Fashion is liberating." Just fill in the blank: Fashion is _______, and I guarantee you it has been said in an article, book, or blog post.

And then, add Native American designers, cultures, art, education, and history to the fashion mix, and now you've got a fantastic doctoral dissertation topic. I should know, I wrote about it. But, what is Native American fashion? I always ask people this question, and I get some interesting responses. Some say anything wearable made by a Native American; others insist that there exists a connection - some connection, to a place through the use of natural materials, to traditional practices through chosen techniques, to family or community-held stories through color choice or designs, or even to history through silhouette or accessories. And now a sizable traveling exhibit that focuses on just this topic? Yes.

With around 100 individual pieces of wearable art made by over 70 different artists, most of whom are still alive and still producing exciting work, we get to see this moment: a large-scale three-dimensional freeze-frame of this moment. We get to submerge ourselves in a parallel universe where Native-made fashion reigns supreme. Here, Native-inspired fashion exists (you know, that stuff made by non-Native designers), but it takes a backseat to the whimsical fashion of Patricia Michaels, the classical styles of Dorothy Grant, the otherworldly dresses of Wendy Ponca, and that luxurious feather gown by Sho Sho Esquiro (above right). In this space we get to dream.

In this space, the elite, the eccentric, and the common folk all wear Native-made fashion. From the bottom of your Louie Gong sneakers to the top of your Waterlily parasol, it's all-Native. We don't even see this kind of representation of Native-made fashion in our own reservation communities (hey, assimilation was a bitch). Thank goodness for powwows, seriously. And thank goodness for the dozens of Native American designers who are making it easy for us to share and wear Native-made fashion on a daily basis, to cloak ourselves in story, in meaning, in purpose, and in style. We are still here. We are still here, and we look fucking fabulous.

To learn more about the exhibit, visit the Peabody Essex Museum website, or read these great reviews by the Wall Street Journal, Arts Fuse, the Artery, and The Boston Globe. And definitely snatch up the exhibit catalog, it does not disappoint.

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