When we think about Native American culture, fashion typically isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
A new exhibition seeks to change that. Native Fashion Now, featuring dozens of works by nearly 70 contemporary indigenous designers, will reveal the range and diversity of North American tribal artists who have contributed to the fashion industry today.
First curated at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the traveling show makes its final stop at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center, where it opens tonight and runs through Sept. 4.
“Native American art and culture are often perceived as phenomena of the past,” says Kathleen Ash-Milby, the museum's associate curator. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Contemporary native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience.”
The exhibition groups the designers into thematic sections: Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs. The first highlights artists who have crossed over into the mainstream, such as Taos Pueblo designer Patricia Michaels, a 2013 "Project Runway" Season 11 finalist. Her “Cityscape” dress, which was featured in the Bravo show, seamlessly merges the urban and the natural, with hand-painted silver gray slits cut into a mauve leather dress.
Then there’s Cherokee designer Lloyd Kiva New, a pioneer of Native American fashion who passed away in 2002. He founded the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, NM, and saw his own designs sold by major retailers like Neiman Marcus. Selected from his repertoire is a blue-green-yellow streaked vintage cotton dress, with screenprinted brown horses.
In “Revisitors,” the ties to native culture are more pronounced. Ash-Milby notes Kiowa designer Teri Greeves’ white buckskin parasol with iconographic imagery in the style of Plains ledger drawings. “Activators” includes work that infuses native themes with a street style sensibility. See Navajo designer Jared Yazzie’s cheeky statement shirt that reads: “Native Americans Discovered Columbus.”
For an experimental, conceptual turn, look to “Provocateurs” like Chickasaw designer Margaret Roach Wheeler. Her piece, “The Messenger (The Owl)” consists of a hand-woven cape and headpiece, incorporating real peacock feathers and a beaded mask.
Thursday's opening reception kicks off at 6 p.m., is free and open to the public and features a “Curator’s Conversation” with Ash-Milby and Karen Kramer, the Peabody’s curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture.
If You Go
Native Fashion Now
National Museum of the American Indian
1 Bowling Green
Feb. 17-Sept. 4
10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, Thursdays 10 a.m.-8 p.m.