Note:  This exhibit ended March 6, 2016

About a month ago (it takes me way too long to get things written these days!) I had the pleasure of attending a press preview for a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum entitled Native Fashion Now which opened to the public on November 21st and runs through March 6, 2016.  Spanning the last 65 years and featuring over 100 works by Native fashion designers and artists, the exhibit runs the gamut from street clothes to exquisite haute coutre in the form of clothing, accessories, and footwear designed and created by pioneering style-makers to contemporary up-and-coming mavericks who are making their own marks in today's world of fashion.

Even though I have been to several press previews at the PEM and they've all been awesome, I knew that this particular preview was really going to be awesome when it was opened by 6-time World Champion Hoop Dancer Nakota LaRance who put on a short performance for those of us in attendance.  Had I been thinking, I would have gotten a video of Nakota's dance as it was quite impressive with a mixture of hip-hop and traditional Native American dance moves but I did manage to snap a few somewhat blurry photos. For a real treat, click over to this video and check out Nakota's impressive moves as he cinches the 2015 World Championship Hoop Dance competition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.

Following Nakota's impressive opening, Karen Kramer, curator of Native American Art and Culture at the PEM, said a few words about the inspiration for Native Fashion Now which was twofold stemming from the museum’s successful 2012 exhibition “Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art" and Kramer's observance of cultural and stylistic changes happening in the Native American community. Though visitors will find some turquoise, feathers, deer hide, and other elements of traditional Native American clothing, the fashion show presents an array of contemporary, sometimes edgy, far from stereotypical clothing and accessories. “We moved the audience’s perception from looking at Native American designers through an anthropological lens, or as craft, to looking at them as dynamic and evolving and not static and trapped,” said Kramer. “These active artists are agents of change.”

Native Fashion Now is divided into four themes categorizing featured designers as Pathbreakers who are described as “groundbreaking designers who have really changed the landscape of Native American fashion and design”: Revisitors who are “contemporary Native designers expanding on the past in exciting new ways": the Activators are designers who embrace “personal style and streetwear and how you can express who you are in what you wear in an everyday kind of way”: and lastly Provocateurs - those “designers who are really experimental in terms of playing with forms and materials and motifs."

Beneath a shower of parasols designed by Native American artist Patricia Michaels, our curator-led tour of the exhibit began with what looked to be a simple sheath dress,  Upon closer inspection, the dress by Michaels, a Taos Pueblo, is seen to be hand-painted leather depicting lighted windows of city buildings cut to reveal the cobalt blue silk underneath that represents water - an important element of Native American history and culture. Created when she was a contestant on Season 11 of Project Runway in 2013 (finishing as the Runner-Up) Michael's "Cityscape" dress was created during a challenge to make a garment that incorporated a representation of New York City.  The exhibit also plays a video of models displaying her edgy and contemporary clothing while carrying some of her pretty parasols.

In "Pathfinders" on display are two vintage dresses by the first Native American to achieve success with consumer fashion - Lloyd Kiva New, a Cherokee born in Oklahoma. Considered to be the Father of Contemporary Native American Fashion, New designed dresses and leather goods in the 40s and 50s before co-founding the Institute of American Indian Arts where he taught generations of Native American artists. Borrowing colors from western riverbeds, cliffs, and scrub plants for his fabrics, New printed the cloths with stylized figures and animals drawn from his Cherokee heritage and built up a following not just among shoppers in Arizona who found his designs irresistible but also those at Saks Fifth Avenue also.

"Eagle Gala Dress" made of Eagle silk, a signature textile of the designer, and "She-Wolf Tuxedo" by Dorothy Grant, an internationally renowned fashion designer and Haida artist.

Using computer-aided machinery instead of standard jewelry-making tools like wooden anvils, metalsmiths and brothers Pat Pruitt - Laguna Pueblo - and Chris Pruitt - Laguna Pueblo and Chiricahua Apache - occasionally collaborate on wearable art like this belt buckle made of stainless steel, silver Teflon, turquoise, and coral.

Headdress by Orlando Dugi - Diné (Navajo) from his "Desert Heat" collection made from feathers, porcupine quills, paint, and 24-karat gold. 

Alaskan Native Chugach Aleut Denise Wallace’s silver-and-gold belt featuring basketweavers and dollmakers made from agate and lapis is simply stunning.
"Medicine Hat" designed in 2013 by Dwayne  "Chuck" Wilcox - Ogalala Lakota - of Rapid City, South Dakota
"Indian Parade Umbrella" by Teri Greeves - Kiowa - of Santa Fe, New Mexico 

Corset of silk, cotton, and steel and skirt of silk shantung by Laura Sheppherd of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Earrings of sterling silver, 24-karat gold, and mammoth ivory with a necklace of dentalium shell and brain-tanned hide both designed by Dallin Maybee - Northern Arapaho and Seneca from the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in Western New York and the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming - currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
"Crystal Gazer Ring" made of sterling silver, quartz, pearl, and gold by Fritz J. Casuse - Diné (Navajo) - of Santa Fe, New Mexico
Kimoni and Obi by Toni Williams - Northern Arapaho - of Taylorsville, Utah was designed with a nod to her her own Native American heritage and the Japanese heritage of a friend's daughter.

The "Totem Pole" dress designed by Isaac Mizarhi as an homage to Native American aesthetics was originally worn by Naomi Campbell on the cover of TIME magazine in 1991.

Fashion artist Jamie Okuma, a Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock who began beading at age 5, used antique beads to embellish a pair of Christian Louboutin boots (identifiable by the red soles!) with birds and abstract floral motifs inspired by the western plains.

Mike Bird-Romero - Ohkay Owingeh and Taos Pueblos - designed four bracelets: The top left bracelet is made of sterling silver, spiny oyster shell, and turquoise while the bottom left is sterling silver, abalone shell, and onyx. The top right bracelet is made of sterling silver, abalone shell, and onyx and the bottom is crafted of sterling silver, onyx, and turquoise. The left center bracelet is designed by Eddie Begay - Diné (Navajo) of sterling silver, turquoise, coral, and jet while the center right is of sterling silver, spiny oyster shell, and stones designed by Ray Adakai and Alice Shay - both Diné (Navajo).

Jared Yazzie - Diné (Navajo) - is the owner of OXDX Clothing in Chandler, Arizona where he uses fashion as a means of inspiration to express political ideas and identity. His most famous design to date is the "Native Americans Discovered Colombus" t-shirt shown below.
Unfortunately I was so busy taking photos that I didn't get the artist's information but I really didn't want to leave it out out this post as it's just so colorful and awesome-looking.  Maybe someone can help out with the details? 

To the left above, an ensemble by Jamie Okuma (who also beaded the boots above) while on the right, "Nana's Bandolier" made of leather, horsehair, semi-precious stones, brass, and copper was designed by Nelda Schrupp - Ihunktewan/Nakota - who uses a variety of dyes and tool such as torches to construct wearable art. A Smithsonian Art Fellow, Schrupp's work is included in the permanent collection at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. All of her pieces have the capability of making sound which she calls the "voices" of her ancestors speaking of Native determination and perseverance.

Designers Dorothy Grant and Nelda Schrupp were kind enough to pose for a photo. Thank you ladies! 
Lone Ranger and Tonto beaded bracelet by Marcus Amerman - Choctaw - who defines his concept of art as "a Great Mystery."
"Gunmetal Pleat Dress" by Consuelo Pascual - Diné and Maya - and "Postmodern Boa" by David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin - Diné and Picuris Navajo.
Dress by Pilar Agoyo - San Juan Pueblo - who is also a fashion designer for films with designs that are best described as "slick, edgy, and theatrical."
"Pocha Haida Dress" made of red cedar bark, cordage, and faux-leather fringe by Lisa Telford - Haida

Silver breastplate necklace by Kristen Dorsey - Chickasaw - incorporates a large stingray skin set in the center and adorned with a 52-carat natural blue Larimar cabochon. Holding a degree in American studies with a concentration in Native American studies from Tufts University in Boston, Dorsey's belief is that "... jewelry is a sacred narrative. Jewelry captures a moment of significance for the wearer, it marks important transitions in a life, it symbolizes relationships with one another, with one’s community, with one’s cultural identity, and with one’s spirituality."
"Tahitian Bondage Necklace and Earrings" made of stainless steel and natural Tahitian pearls by Pat Pruitt - Laguna Pueblo - who trained as a mechanical engineer and worked in machine shops and in the body piercing industry before starting to make jewelry in the mid-1990s. With materials that are radically different from the familiar turquoise and silver of the Native American Southwest. Pruitt told the Indian Country Today Media Network, "Some of my designs push the boundaries of wearable fashion, but so do high heels."
Speaking to my sister-in-law Ann who attended the preview with me and is herself a graphic designer, Pruitt explained how he uses computer-aided three-dimensional technology along with classic jeweler's tools to create his jewelry from non-precious metals like titanium, stainless steel and zirconium. Though deeply involved in his Pueblo community, Pruitt stated that he designs his pieces outside of the box of the expected aesthetics of the Southwest because "it's cool" and "looks awesome" - which it does!
"Wile, Wile, Wile Dress" from the 2013 Day of the Dead collection by Sho Sho Esquiro - Kaska Dene and Cree - closes the collection. Meaning "the sounds of wing on flight", the dress is constructed of silk, rayon, and rooster feathers along with seal, beaver, and carp skins.
I had a chance to speak with Sho Sho a little bit and she told me that the hardest material to work with on this dress was the carp skin as it's very tough to get a needle through it.  Needless to say I was somewhat surprised by that and also rather disappointed that this photo came out so blurry.  This is what I get for leaving the Nikon behind and taking the point-and-shoot for carrying convenience.  That'll teach me!

The exhibit ends up back where you started at Patricia Michaels' "Cityscape" dress and I don't know, maybe it was just me but after having the chance to walk through and look at the contributions from the other artists whose works are on display, I have to say that I had a greater appreciation for the dress than I did when I first walked in. I think it's in seeing the exhibit as a whole that you gain a better understanding of the individual pieces and that's always a good thing being that fashion - like art - can be very subjective.

After closing in March, Native Fashion Now will travel to the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon; the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and finally to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York City but if you have the chance to see it while it's in Salem, I highly recommend that you wander up and do so. For more information, visit


  1. Oh wow! I may have to hit Portland when it's there. Those boots were gorgeous. The eagle silk dress was too... As was the Aleut piece. Wow. Just wow...

  2. Just saw the show in Portland - fabulous! loved it all!


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