Fashion trends come and go, but like the little black dress some garb never goes out of style. For decades, footwear, jewelry, purses and clothing with Native American influences have surfaced as fashion staples, cycling in and out of designer collections in any given year. But is this cultural appropriation or high fashion’s attempt to salute indigenous cultures? Clothing chains such as Urban Outfitters have come under fire for labeling their goods “Navajo” with reportedly no input from the Navajo Nation. To boot, bloggers are increasingly taking to task non-Natives who wear headdresses and other indigenous apparel to play a cross-cultural game of dress up of sorts. By supporting indigenous designers and learning more about the missteps the fashion world has made in regards to Native dress, you can avoid making the ultimate fashion faux pas—cultural insensitivity.
Native American Fashion Staples
Cultural appropriation is probably the last thing on shoppers’ minds when they hit the mall. Many consumers have no clue they’re wearing an item that has blatantly co-opted Native American culture. The rise of boho chic has especially blurred the lines. A shopper may associate a pair of feather earrings they like with hippies and bohemians and not with Native Americans. But the feather earrings, feather hair accessories and beaded jewelry on the contemporary fashion market largely owe their inspiration to indigenous cultures. The same goes for fringe purses, vests and boots, not to mention mukluks, moccasins and Native American prints on clothing.It’s certainly not a crime to wear these fashion items. But it’s important to recognize when cultural appropriation occurs and that some of the Native apparel commodified don’t just have cultural significance but also spiritual significance in Native American communities. The leather fringe purse you’re crazy about may look great with your new outfit, but it’s actually modeled after a medicine bag, which has religious importance in indigenous cultures. You might also consider researching the manufacturers who peddle apparel with Native American influences. Are Native American designers employed by the company? Does the business do anything to give back to indigenous communities?
Playing Dress Up as an Indian
While countless consumers will inadvertently buy products inspired by indigenous cultures, some will make a conscious decision to appropriate Native dress. This is a misstep made by trendy hipsters and high fashion magazines alike. Attending an outdoor music festival wearing a headdress, face paint, leather fringe and beaded jewelry isn’t a fashion statement but a mockery of aboriginal cultures. Just as dressing up as a Native American would be inappropriate for Halloween, it’s offensive to pile on pseudo-Native attire to get in touch with your inner hippie at a rock concert, especially when you know little about the clothing’s cultural significance. Fashion magazines such as Vogue and Glamour have been accused of cultural insensitivity by featuring fashion spreads in which white models “go primitive” by wearing Native-inspired fashions and including no Native American designers, photographers or other consultants in the process. Lisa Wade of the website Sociological Images says, “These cases romanticize Indian-ness, blur separate traditions (as well as the real and the fake), and some disregard Indian spirituality. They all happily forget that, before white America decided that American Indians were cool, some whites did their absolute best to kill and sequester them. …So, no, it’s not cute to wear a feather in your hair or carry an Indian rug clutch, it’s thoughtless and insensitive.”
Supporting Native Designers
If you enjoy indigenous fashions, consider buying them directly from First Nations designers and artisans throughout North America. You can find them at Native American cultural heritage events, powwows and marketplaces. Also, academic Jessica Metcalfe runs a blog called Beyond Buckskin that features indigenous fashions, brands and designers such as Sho Sho Esquiro, Tammy Beauvais, Disa Tootoosis, Virgil Ortiz and Turquoise Soul, to name a few. Buying indigenous apparel and accessories from an artisan directly is an entirely different experience than buying Native-inspired goods from a corporation. Take Priscilla Nieto, an accomplished jewelry maker from the Santo Domingo Pueblo. She says, “We put good intentions into our work, and look forward to the person who will wear it. We do a prayer—a blessing—for the wearer of the piece, and we hope they accept this with their heart—all of the teaching from the parents and from our family.”