Native American fashion.
For some, the phrase might recall traditional–often stereotypical–images of 19th century regalia. Moccasins. Buckskin.
To others, Native American fashion mirrors the jeans, t-shirts and sneakers worn by everyone in the United States.
A third group, Indigenous fashion designers, are looking to their cultural past and creating clothing, jewelry and accessories honoring that history while forwarding it for contemporary wearers.
Among the dazzling array of pottery, paintings, textiles, sculpture and jewelry from hundreds of Native American artists on display each August at Santa Fe Indian Market, haute couture from Indigenous fashion designers has increasingly been taking the spotlight. When Indian Market returns for its 99th edition later this month, the fashion show will again be a highlight.
The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ 2021 Indigenous Fashion Show takes place Sunday, August 22, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. at the Santa Fe Convention Center featuring designers Jamie Okuma (Luiseño, Wailaki, Okinawan, and Shoshone-Bannock), Himikalas/Pamela Baker (Squamish, Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw/Tlingit/Haida), Orlando Dugi (Diné), and Lauren Good Day (Arikara, Hidatsa, Blackfeet and Plains Cree). The show will once again be produced by curator and art historian Amber-Dawn Bear Robe (Siksika Nation) who has guided the event for SWAIA since its debut in 2014.
“Makeup and hair was done in the SWAIA offices–the place was exploding with high heels, beauty tools, undergarments and fake eyelashes,” Bear Robe recalled to Forbes.com of that inaugural event. “Models were transported to the outdoor runway in the enclosed back of a U-Haul truck!”
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The event has come a long way since that first show. In less than a decade, it has equaled in prestige and anticipation what takes place on the Plaza and throughout downtown Santa Fe: the most prestigious juried Native arts show in the world.
Good Day credits “the influx of talented Native designers bringing their own styles, experiences and cultures,” as a primary reason for the astonishing ascension in popularity of the Fashion Show.
“Also, it’s easy for many to take interest and participate in the art by wearing Indigenous designer pieces; (we’re) bringing the art directly to the collectors with ready to wear garments,” she told Forbes.com.
“Indigenous designers are Indigenizing fashion by creating looks inspired by their culture while extending beyond the expectations of ‘Indian’ design,” Bear Robe added. “Native style is always changing and unique to each area, artist and designer.”
A continuous tradition
Indigenous art and fashion have always been more than linked. Beadwork, quillwork, war shirts, blankets–Native American art was functional, undivided from the broader culture and society.
“Historically, art and design was integrated into everyday life rather than separated into an object that is placed on a wall or cabinet to admire,” Bear Robe explained. “The beauty was worn, adorned and appreciated daily.”
Increasingly, Indigenous fashion designers are reviving that wearable art connection.
“Art is the physical manifestation of our cultures, values and stories,” Good Day said. “So contemporary Indigenous fashion is who we are today as historic Indigenous fashion is who my ancestors were then; it all makes a beautiful visual story of Indigeneity which is unique from tribe to tribe and person to person.”
An important reminder that “Indigenous fashion” no more represents one style, set of practices or beliefs than “Indigenous person” or “Indigenous culture” does.
“Diné (Navajo) clothing and adornment was linked to status and traditional values. Clothing and accessories were made for each individual person, so they were customized,” Dugi told Forbes.com. “They were made with thoughts of love and good will toward the loved one for whom it was intended. When I design a garment, it is with intentions of good will to whoever wears it.”
Balancing their desire to modernize and reach contemporary audiences while honoring the past stays at the forefront for the designers.
“I grew up creating mainly the more ‘traditional’ clothing for our celebrations, powwows, ceremonies and doings, which then turned into my focus and passion on ready to wear clothing to share my culture and designs with a greater audience,” Good Day said. “I believe it’s really a continuation of who we are. We are living and thriving cultures who sometimes blend, combine and share influences with mainstream society, yet we firmly hold what is intrinsic to being Native to this land such as lifeways and language.”
Santa Fe Indian Market 2021
This year’s Indian Market will be a hybrid event. The online marketplace launched last year as COVID-19 prevented the show from taking place in Santa Fe for the first time since 1922 will combine with a smaller, in-person market at 75% capacity of the 2019 event. Visitors will be able to purchase a limited number of tickets to shop the market in time slots over its two days.
New this year will be the SWAIA Indigenous Fashion Trunk Show, an exclusive shopping opportunity limited to ticket holders at the Indigenous Fashion Show. Immediately following the show, guests can buy and order directly from the designers, a unique opportunity to participate directly in this exciting movement.
“(Indigenous fashion) not only tells our personal stories, but visually tells the history and stories of our tribal nations,” Good Day said. “It is a unique perspective from the original people of this land and it’s happening at Indian Market.”