March 23, 2010

Some History | Ribbon Work and Ribbon Shirts

(Penny Singer updates the ribbonshirt to put her own twist on this classic garment)

Ribbon shirts are one example of an adapting and enduring Indian garment. Many contemporary Native American fashion designers incorporate ribbon work into their designs or create ribbon shirts. Colored silk ribbons were first introduced by French and English traders, and were subsequently adopted into Native traditional practices, including use as decoration for ceremonial offerings. Ribbons were also appliquéd onto clothing, sometimes using a mirror-image design with ribbons of contrasting colors. Ribbons were also used where pigment would normally - the brighter colors of the ribbons was one of the reason why this material was so readily incorporated in to important regalia. Contemporary Native fashion designer Margaret Wood demonstrated how ribbonwork panels could be applied to various garments, including shirts, dresses, and skirts. Ribbon shirts for men – where the ribbons are sewn to the yoke – are now quite prevalent and have become a pan-Indian attire, worn with jeans or pants, for men at all types of special social gatherings.

Ribbon appliqué is an important art form for several different tribal groups. For those in the Great Lakes region, it has been the basis for traditional women’s regalia for more than 150 years. Even though the designs and materials have changed over time, the many clothing makers still associate ribbon appliqué as part of traditional life.

Thunderworks described the origins of the Art Form: Ribbon appliqué originated in the Great Lakes region in the late 1700s with the introduction of silk. Because silk deteriorates, there are very few samples of ribbon work prior to 1850. Its existence prior to 1850 is documented by a leather breechcloth decorated with a silk ribbon appliqué border.

An important feature of ribbon appliqué is the visual reversal of the pattern and background which changes with the shifting perception of the viewer. A pattern is cut out of paper and transferred to a ribbon of one color. The ribbon is cut and appliquéd with invisible stitches to a background panel of ribbon of another color. Two or more strips are joined and sewn to a muslin backing creating a wider panel. The panel is then applied to a garment of dark wool. Panels are used to decorate skirts, breechcloths, leggings, and blankets.

Prior to 1850, the genesis of ribbon appliqué began with patterns that were entirely geometric and repeating. The ribbons were very narrow. Several strips had to be combined to make an elaborate panel.

Beginning in 1850, the designs were still repeating but in much larger, more complicated, more varied motifs. Designs become more curvilinear, but still somewhat angular. In the 1900’s major changes occurred with the introduction of bilateral symmetry within the structure of the panels. Motifs were separated, still repeating and less angular. In 1955, the art form was characterized by large curvilinear designs and abstract floral motifs. Even more recent changes include abstract floral motifs on a solid background.