Native American Fashion Exhibit Explores LGBT Influences

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Native Fashion Now, an exhibition currently open at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, chronicles the evolution of Native American fashion–and its subsequent appropriation by international designers, like Ralph Lauren and Christian Louboutin. Queer and Two Spirit artist Kent Monkman has artworks throughout the exhibit, which reference class, power and wealth dynamics between Europeans and Native Americans. We chatted with Karen Kramer, curator of the exhibition, to learn more. Native Fashion Now is open through September 4th.


Karen, in the forward you write: [Native Americans] have used clothing and personal adornment as a key means of artistic expression for millennia. Why do you think Native American style and motifs are hitting mainstream fashion now in such a significant way?

I think in some ways that what’s happening now is another wave of mainstream fashion. Native motifs and style was big in the 60s. Hippie style was fueled by Native style, so it’s having another moment now. It might just be that the mainstream designers have found success with the colors, symbols and patterns. Consumers seem to just be genuinely drawn to these motifs and I think these trends are catching on again.


Native American fashion has had a significant impact on mainstream fashion. Why do you think the knowledge of their contributions isn’t as widespread as it should be?

I think that is a reflection of the uneven power dynamics of marginalized communities and the mainstream. Mainstream designers aren’t giving credit to their sources in Native fashion, often due to a lack of awareness or sensitivity on the designers’ part, but also because of the uneven power dynamic that’s at play.

Black sheer and tan Native American dress design by high end luxury designer
Bethany Yellowtail dress inspired by Northern Plains fashion.

What are a few key ways Native Americans expressed their cultural identity through fashion?

Often identity, whether it’s a personal, family or community identity, is expressed through symbols, patterns, and through materiality that indicate who you are. There’s a Bethany Yellowtail dress in Native Fashion Now, that’s representative of this concept. It has a row of white elk teeth that goes across the sleeves and chest, which is based on historic Northern Plains women’s dresses. Elk teeth are a very prestigious item, which–in wearing them–elevates you in society and represents your family well. In the 19th century, things that could be traded for were also prestigious items because that meant you were important enough and wealthy and savvy enough in the community to get these materials. Also anything with glass beads on it was a big deal.

The sacred feather headdress is an example because for many Native communities, men had to earn the right to wear one. In specific communities, each feather had to be earned and was representative of a heroic deed. You accrue enough feathers for a headdress to be made and then your status is such that you’ve earned the right to wear one in the community or at war. When this is taken out of context, by the mainstream public for example, like at Coachella or at Halloween, the meaning is flattened, taken out of context, and becomes stereotyped–that’s when things become particularly problematic.


It seems that Native American fashion is just as much about the design and creation process as it is about the final product. How significantly do symbols and motifs work their way into traditional styles?

Symbols and motifs find their way into contemporary styles. Native designers are taking the idea of a pattern and they’re applying new color to it or they’re abstracting it a bit. They’re not always taking something that was handed down to them and replicating it. There’s an element of evolution that they’re incorporating into their work. That underscores another point of the show: that Native American fashion is always refreshing itself. Like any kind of art or culture, it’s not going to be healthy unless there’s some kind of element of change over time and so Native artists have always been embracing new ideas, motifs and materials into their work.


How are new symbols or techniques being implemented?

Some designers, when they’re designing pieces for community ceremonies, there are certain conventions that they’re comfortable adhering to and others are embracing change. For instance, a friend of mine incorporated the Batman symbol onto a cape for his son’s dance wear. There’s room for change, but there are other families who might not ever do that and they rely on what’s more time-honored.

Christian Louboutin Beaded Heel Boots
Native American-inspired boots from Christian Louboutin


How do you separate cultural appropriation from cultural inspiration?

I found something useful from a NY-based intellectual property rights lawyer, Susan Scafidi. She says to remember the three S’s: consider the source, significance and similarity. The source meaning, think about if something is coming from a Native community that has been oppressed or from an artist who might not have the same resources as Ralph Lauren for example. The significance begs the question, is it sacred? Is the pattern intellectually owned by a Native individual or their family who have the rights to use this pattern? It becomes a moral issue.  And how similar is what you’re creating or buying to the source of material? That’s also where the line between appropriation and inspiration can be crossed–it’s one thing to take the idea of a pattern or an idea of a pattern with colors and copy it, and it’s another to take the idea of it and riff and make it your own. And it’s another thing entirely to take something and copy it from a Native person from a community that has undergone 500+ years of oppression and marginalization. It really requires a willingness from a designer or consumer to do a little more research and think a little more deeply.


There is a lot of confusion about the term ‘two-spirit.’ Could you describe the true meaning behind the term, and how it relates (if at all) to the LGBTQ community?

Since time immemorial, there are some Native people who are born with the spirits of both genders in one body, called two-spirit people, and the two spirits are expressed in different ways. It goes beyond the binary of male and female in that it encompasses a third gender, long revered in Native cultures and understood to possess sacred powers. Native musician Ty Defoe describes two-spirit as identifying as Native or indigenous, and that your spirit is all-encompassing of gender and sexual orientation at the same time. It is not simply transgender, which implies going from one gender to the next.  Prior to colonization, men and women had no gender rules they had to abide by – they were valued as members of their tribe based on their contributions, not on their gender attributes. Once Euro-Americans came onto the scene, they looked at two-spirits as degrading and disgusting. Christianity and missionization of Native people complicated how two-spirits were received by their own communities. But now, two-spirits are starting to find their voice and their communities more willing to accept them again.


Is there an artist whose work you’re especially excited to share in the upcoming show?

One of our artists in the show, Kent Monkman, is a fantastic painter, performance, and installation artist; he’s got a very large range as a multi-disciplinary artist and he has an alter ego–Miss Chief, who is two-spirit. We are honored to have Miss Chief’s quiver, which is a case for her bow and arrows. She has very discerning taste and very high style. Kent designed the very best quiver he could for her, so she carries a Louis Vuitton-style quiver for her bow and arrows.

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