On April 1, Steinhardt’s Costume Studies program presented their third installment of their Dress and Culture Symposium Series, titled “Native Visions: American Indian Adornment Then and Now.” The department invited an array of scholars, all specializing in Native American fashion studies, to discuss both the evolution of Native American style and its influence on contemporary fashion.
In his opening remarks, Daniel James Cole, a professor in the graduate Costume Studies program at Steinhardt and co-author of The History of Modern Fashion with fellow professor Nancy Diehl, spoke about the evolution of Native American fashion.
“Our program recognizes fashion as a cultural phenomenon,” Cole said. “The fashions of Native American people are no different.”
One of the keynote presenters was Karen Kramer, a curator of Native American Art and Culture at Peabody Essex Museum. Over the past 20 years, Kramer helped produce ten major exhibitions on Native American art and culture, and her experience working with Native scholars and communities has had a profound effect on the exhibits. In her presentation, she encouraged speakers not to forget the Native American’s significance on American history.
“We’re here on indigenous land, and we need to recognize its original inhabitants,” Kramer said.
Like Kramer, the other speakers gave these same remarks, telling the audience to remember the intrusion of the Europeans on native land during the Colonial Era in American history. This intrusion synthesizes with the “borrowing” of native fashions. Many big name designers, most notably Ralph Lauren, have built empires on over 500 years of work by Native Americans by using stereotypical Native American prints and accents in their clothes.
“In modern fashion, Native American inspired designs are essentialized, flattened and out of context,” said Kramer. “But many Native American artists are reclaiming their design culture.
In Native American fashion, we’re living in the middle of the Renaissance. Native American designers are incorporating their ancestral designs in contemporary fashions.”
Although it is important to recognize the Native American’s effect on modern fashion, according to Daniel Cole, it is also vital to recognize that Native American fashion has also evolved.
“Always in Native American fashion creation has happened, is happening and will continue to happen,” said Cole. “And that creation can happen through their templates of design shifting from one [animal] hide to using three or through their use of materials.”
Professor Cole gave a talk on the sustainability of Native American fashion, mainly in the Plains Region. Native Americans are known to use every part of the animal in their designs and for food. He noted Native American’s use of European settlers unwanted materials, such as ribbon and tin containers. Ribbon was unfavored by the French after the French-Indian War since it symbolized the use of the guillotine when traditionally worn around the neck. The Native Americans used ribbon to replace painted stripes on their hide dresses.
“The fashion industry is the most wasteful industry, and big name companies are searching for a model to look up to. Native Americans, especially the Plains Indians, can be a prime example of sustainability in fashion,” said Cole.
Jhane Myers, another keynote speaker, is a designer and full-blooded Comanche and Blackfoot Native American. In her presentation titled, Native Clothing Traditions, Fashion and Film, he spoke about her experience working at Ralph Lauren, designing for herself and her children and now working as a consultant for Native American fashion in films.
“Walking into my interview at Ralph Lauren, I was the last one out of 60 other people,” Meyers said. “The woman asked me why I deserved the job and I said, ‘You’re company claims to be all-American, and I’m 100% Native American.’”
Being the only Native American speaker, Jhane Myers was expected by audience members to feel outraged by the ethics of Ralph Lauren’s designs. “I found Ralph Lauren’s designs to be acceptable if you understood them in the context of native fashions, Let’s be honest they exploit us, and we exploit them right back nowadays,” said Myers.
In Native American societies, the women of the household make the formal wear for their children, which is worn for years considering the amount of effort and materials used.
“I make outfits for my children for ceremonial purposes and for dancing competitions. For years now, my designs have won best in show amongst tens of other designs,” said Myers.
The talk was full of ranging opinions, coming first hand from Jhane Myers and from years of study by Karen Kramer. All the speakers truly had audience members thinking of how the fashion industry has exploited and misidentified a culture for years.
To see contemporary Native American fashions, check out the Native Fashion Now exhibit, which is on display now until Sept. 4, 2017 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan.
Pamela Jew is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.