Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

The United States and Canada


Phyllis G. Tortora (ed)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Influence of North American Indian and First Nations Dress on Mainstream Fashion

Pamela C. Baker and Phyllis G. Tortora

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch3061
Pages: 467–472


Fashion designers of First Nations and North American Indian ancestry began to feel confident about being referred to as fashion designers only by the early 1970s. Fashion has not always been important to indigenous people, but telling a story has. Through their work these designers believe they are telling the story of their people; they are passionate about their work and especially passionate about how it supports their communities. The difference between North American aboriginal design and mainstream design within the fashion industry is that these designers intend to reflect their own culture, identity, and individual rights to use traditional art. Many Indian designers are knowledgeable about the meanings behind clan and tribal designs that relate to their rights and their ancestry. For example, First Nations designers from Canada speak of strong ties with their ancestors, especially their grandparents, and they say that they see it as their duty to find ways to instill pride in the younger generations by reviving the culture and traditions of their people.

Fashion designers of First Nations and North American Indian ancestry began to feel confident about being referred to as fashion designers only by the early 1970s. Fashion has not always been important to indigenous people, but telling a story has. Through their work these designers believe they are telling the story of their people; they are passionate about their work and especially passionate about how it supports their communities. The difference between North American aboriginal design and mainstream design within the fashion industry is that these designers intend to reflect their own culture, identity, and individual rights to use traditional art. Many Indian designers are knowledgeable about the meanings behind clan and tribal designs that relate to their rights and their ancestry. For example, First Nations designers from Canada speak of strong ties with their ancestors, especially their grandparents, and they say that they see it as their duty to find ways to instill pride in the younger generations by reviving the culture and traditions of their people.

Some designers describe much of their work as “wearable art.” The designs that they create for customers reflect aboriginal art. It has been estimated that 90 percent of these designers create custom orders and have little or no focus on mass production. When commissioned to design a piece for a customer, these artists are not just taking directions from the customer; they are also including a touch of their culture in the piece. Sometimes they may be commissioned to replicate a fabulous traditional piece.

Designers do not ignore mainstream Western fashion and European design, because the overall trends for what is new for the next season tend to originate there. Designers do the research necessary to keep current the fashions that incorporate their art. As relative newcomers to producing fashionable items, many North American Indian and First Nations designers are only just learning to work as entrepreneurs; the Canadian and U.S. ways of doing business are new to them. Access to education was limited for most of the parents and grandparents of the present designers. The previous generations of First Nations people in Canada were allowed to go to school only until the eighth grade and could not go on to higher education. In the United States, educational policies were directed toward trying to use schools to turn Indian children into “Americans” and toward erasing their language and culture.

Borrowing Indian Designs and Ideas for Fashionable Dress

The earliest contacts between North American Indians and Europeans led Europeans to adopt some elements of the dress they saw in native communities. The materials from which Indian dress was made or with which it was decorated were especially interesting to them. Europeans prized fur from beaver for use in making felt for hats, and in the Pacific Northwest, the Russians harvested otter skins for the China trade, nearly wiping out the otters in the process. Deerskin garments were a practical alternative for explorers, and eventually fringed deerskin or leather became a hallmark of the stereotypical cowboy dress. European shoemakers quickly added moccasins, a style new to them, to the types of shoes they produced. These have continued to be a fashionable foot covering ever since. To this day, blanket coats, originally made from blankets obtained in trade by native people in the early days of European settlement, can be bought in both the United States and Canada.

Indian design motifs from both North and South America have become part of the repertory of decoration in some art movements. The art deco style of the 1920s and 1930s is particularly notable in this regard. Decorative elements in some art deco architecture (especially in cities in the southwestern United States), interior design, and textiles include motifs that derive from North American Indian and First Nations ornament. In the early twentieth century, U.S. fashion designers were seeking to establish something that could be seen as a truly “American” fashion, in contrast with the European and Parisian focus that predominated. Art historian Mary Donahue, in an article published on the Internet, has described how designers and museums collaborated because the museums allowed the designers access to their collections of artifacts and artworks in their North American Indian collections. She reports that in displays of dress in an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in 1919 called Exhibition of Industrial Art in Textiles and Costumes, designers were identified as basing designs on ornament and style from “Plains Indians,” “patterns and styles associated with the Northwest Coast and Plains Indians shirts,” and items described as “Pueblan.” A bead company identified Woodlands traditions in displaying “Modern Uses of Beads in Dress Accessories.” Donahue also notes that it is possible to find “blouses reminiscent of Plains Indians shirts and bathrobes inspired by Pueblan textiles” from 1918 to the 1920s in the Sears mail order catalog.

Sometimes an individual has been responsible for stimulating interest in North American Indian styles. Millicent Rogers, heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, spent much of her life in New Mexico. She was one of the fashion icons of the 1930s and 1940s and an individual with a highly original fashion sense. Her adoption of elements of Navajo art and dress focused attention on the styles she preferred. Her interest in Navajo garments and jewelry has continued to inspire twenty-first-century designers. Designers Jeff Mahshie and Julie Chaiken cited Rogers and the styles she wore as the “starting point” for their codesigned collection of February 2007.

Hand-sewn quillwork jacket, ca. 1860–1870, Canada. The embroidery, typical of that produced by the Huron First Nation people of Quebec, is thought to have been sewn by a Huron woman at L’Ancienne-Lorette. This example of Huron floral embroidery on fashionable feminine clothing at this time appears to be unique. © McCord Museum M7417.

Fashion designers from New York to Paris have incorporated aspects of Indian design in their couture and ready-to-wear lines. Rifat Ozbek’s 1989 collection used North American Indian feathers and beads on black-velvet sheath dresses. The fashion press reported that Anna Sui showed fringed suede in 2005, as well as North American Indian embroidery and Navajo jewelry. Issac Mizrahi, in 1991, designed what he called a “totem pole dress.” North American Indian designers have noted that designer Ralph Lauren’s use of materials and themes related to the art of the Southwest Indian tribes has served to educate the general public about the beauty of these materials.

North American Indian–inspired elements also appeared as one of the many eclectic elements in the dress of those who were part of the hippie movement of the 1960s. Perhaps the hippies identified with another countercultural group that was struggling for its rights, or they may have been attracted to Indian spiritual connections to nature and the earth that seemed to be different from mainstream Judeo-Christian beliefs. Headbands, fringed leather garments and purses, beaded decoration, and silver jewelry were some of the many items that showed up in hippie dress. Some North American Indians became participants in the hippie movement.

Jewelry-Making and Design

Archaeological excavations show that the earliest people to arrive in North America used both local materials and those that traveled over continent-wide trade routes to create jewelry. After they began to trade with Europeans and Asians, new materials, such as glass beads and silver brooches, were added. Although some limited production of jewelry for trade or sale existed earlier, it was not until the 1930s that more widespread commercial production of jewelry for sale to those outside the community began in the Southwest. Indeed, it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that Navajos began making the silver jewelry that has become so popular. Turquoise was incorporated only in the latter part of that century, and concho belts made from silver shell-shaped disks began to be made about the same time.

By the end of the twentieth century, jewelry designed by talented North American Indian and First Nation designers and inexpensive copies of the traditional designs were available from coast to coast in both the United States and Canada. Among the more popular traditional motifs in earrings are feathers, which are a metaphor for birds and for the powers of the sky, and dream catchers, a netted hoop design intended to catch bad dreams. Squash-blossom necklaces of silver or silver and turquoise are widely sold. Missionaries discouraged the use of traditional beadwork design motifs, so designers incorporated them into the ornamental jewelry. In areas such as Alaska, local designers utilize bone and fossil ivory in necklaces, bracelets, and earrings that are bought as souvenirs by tourists. Some top designers not only create traditionally based designs but also have become known nationally for their original creations.

Fashionable Garments and Accessories Designs

At first designing was a hobby for most of these designers; they were trying to find a way to incorporate traditional designs in a contemporary way. When they found they were passionate about their chosen field, they struggled to do what they loved in a way that would earn them a living and reach a wider audience. Some designers began by applying art to clothing they already had, and they continued their work when they realized people were interested in their designs. Some chose to go back to school to better their skills.

In the more than forty years since the first designers began to gain recognition, the number of fine artisans from Canada, the Northwest Territories, and regions of the United States has grown and continues to grow. Some Canadians, such as Pam Baker and her T.O.C. Legends project, have become fairly well known. Tammy Beauvais is a Mohawk designer with her own fashion design company that opened in 1999. Her creations are sold in more than forty boutiques in Canada and the United States. She is especially well known for cashmere shawls she created for the wives of thirty-four heads of state when they attended a Summit of the Americas in Quebec. D’Arcy Moses is a member of the South Slave Dene nation and lives in the Northwest Territories of Canada. He gained a strong reputation for work in fur. The hallmark of the work of Dorothy Grant is designs she creates that incorporate Haida art. Sold in stores in both Canada and the United States, she includes men’s and women’s coats, handbags, briefcases, and wallets in her collections. Angela DeMontigny lives and works in Ontario and uses elements from Chippewa, Cree, and Métis art in hand-painted and beaded work. Her creations are sold not only in the United States and Canada but also in Europe. Ronald Green, who distributes work under the trade name Ronald Everett, is from the Tsimshian community of Lax KwaLaams in northern British Columbia, and his inspiration is drawn from his heritage. He develops ideas that he says grow out of stories, masks, powwows, and potlatches. Dene Fur Clouds, a design firm based in the Northwest Territories of Canada, has developed a line that specializes in fur. Products include fur knits made into sweaters, vests, and a wide range of accessory items.

This 1920s bathrobe (center) is printed with geometric designs similar to those used by North American Indians of the Southwest region. Dover Publications, Everyday Fashions of the Twenties.

In October 2006, the Indian Craft Shop and the Interior Museum of the U.S. Department of the Interior joined together to present a fashion show called “The American Indian Influence in Fashion.” Among the North American Indian designers whose work was featured were Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger (Navajo) and Kathy “Elk Woman” Whitman (Mandan, Hidatsa, Artikaras). Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger has been the designer for a firm called Navajo Spirit Southwestern Wear since its founding in 1984. The firm makes both contemporary Western wear and traditional Navajo garments. Kathy Whitman is a sculptor and is also known for her jewelry. Hand-painted shawls made by Red Nations Art were also shown.

Patricia Michaels lives and works in New Mexico. Her work is known for use of unusual textures, and she stresses that it is important to her to blend tradition and contemporary style. Margaret Wood, a Navajo, creates wearable art and quilts. After working for more than twenty years, she is known for her modern adaptations of traditional garments, and she presents some of these ideas in her book Native American Tradition.

Objectives of the Designers

A similar theme runs through the statements made by and about these designers. Their objective, no matter where they are located or what their native heritage, is to express their tradition through the medium of dress. Those traditions may relate to the materials used for their creations, the vocabulary of ornament that they incorporate, or the style of dress that is intrinsic to the items produced.

Only toward the end of the twentieth century have First Nations designers begun expressing themselves through the medium of dress. When asked why she chose fashion design as their medium of expression, designer Pam Baker explains:

Dress equals identity. These designers have come a long way from the way the Residential School era had crushed our pride. Now we are working towards gaining and instilling pride back into the communities, especially our youth. We are selling our stories, and educating about where we have come from. We love the art, then we experiment with fine fabrics, traditional fabrics. On the West Coast many of the Northern tribes, upon trading in the 1800s, became familiar with wool, and utilized this fabric for traditional regalia; for button blankets with their crests appliquéd. The button blanket of my relations inspired me, the beauty, and the strength of the family crests, clan design. Many of our designers use the fabrics and designs that they view at potlatches and pow-wows.

The aforementioned designers usually utilize their tribal designs in their work or incorporate art that reflects their heritage or creates contemporary versions of these traditional ideas. The customers for their work vary. Some customers are First Nations and North American Indian people. Most items designed are for women, although native men sometimes order replicas of the traditional dress of their fathers or grandfathers or ask to have a wedding garment designed. Some buyers are collectors of wearable art. These may include celebrities and art enthusiasts. Museums take great interest in the work. On occasion nonnatives want the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of these cultures through dress.

Many designers do only custom orders, and people say that they enjoy going through the design process and fittings and having an opportunity to provide input. Designers also work on special orders and traditional wear. When designers have the opportunity to replicate something that had been worn by their ancestors, they speak of the joy of seeing a piece that may have been checked out of a museum that allows them to view and look closely at the work of their people.

Many of these designers receive a lot of attention from the media. Sometimes several designers will join to showcase their work together. Involvement in the fashion industry is difficult, often due to lack of resources. Funding is hard to obtain, and designers speak of how more training in the field of business would assist more potential designers to be financially successful. At the same time, attitudes in the mainstream fashion industry show a lack of understanding of some of the goals of native designers. One designer reported that when she met with industry representatives, she was told, “I can sell your product all day long, without the artwork.” This is not the message First Nations designers want to bring to their customers. Instead, they see their objective as educating the public about who they are. They want people to know that there are First Nations people working on being self-sufficient, moving away from dependency. They believe that the next generation will have the foresight and tools to succeed more quickly, yet retain their unique identity.

North American Indian and First Nations designers are not immune to the globalization that the fashion industries have undergone. With many artists now moving toward entrepreneurship, they want to move into new products, such as accessories and footwear. They have taken advantage of the lower production costs available in China and arrange for manufacture there or elsewhere in Asia. They expect that keeping costs lower will make their products and designs more accessible.

Sources of Inspiration and Use of Local Materials

North American Indian and First Nations designers utilize design motifs and materials that they know from having been raised in their own particular culture. In the Northwest region, elements of clan designs play an important role. But a designer will use only designs appropriate to his or her clan and then only limited elements of the designs. Button blankets made of wool with mother-of-pearl buttons and chilkat blankets made of goat wool are another source of inspiration that might be tied into contemporary design. The ornamentation on a button blanket represents a particular clan, and the designs on them represent the thunderbird, killer whale, and the like. Chilkat blankets showcase hierarchy, chieftainship, or royalty. But care is taken not to offend members of the community by making exact reproductions.

Chilkat cape, ca. 2000. The design is inspired by the chilkat blanket, traditionally made by the Tlingit people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Courtesy of Pam Baker.

In the Southwest, some of the designs produced have had an interesting historical journey. Both the Navajo and Apache women adapted the Victorian dress that they saw Anglo women wearing in the mid- to late nineteenth century. The Navajo style that developed had a velvet or velveteen blouse worn with a long, full-tiered cotton skirt. Present-day Navajo designers, in turn, have produced items of dress that derive from these garments. This is one of the styles associated with the aforementioned Millicent Rogers, who adopted it and helped to make it popular. During the Victorian period, Apache women wore full gathered skirts and loosely fitted overblouses. This camp dress, as it was called, has also served as a basis for designs by North American Indian designers.

The culture and history of the region from which the designer comes may be related to the kinds of materials that a designer favors. Several designers and design firms from Canada place special emphasis on using fur in their designs, whereas Navajo designers from the Southwest may choose velvet or velveteen and cotton. White pearl buttons on dark backgrounds appear in some of the designs from the Northwest. Patchwork designs, associated with the Seminoles of the Southeast, have been reproduced. Fringing in leather or fabric is often associated with Plains Indians and is incorporated into some designs.

However, designers do not feel themselves limited to the materials associated with North American Indians and First Nations people. Pam Baker speaks of progressing from early designs where she worked with the wool fabrics associated with her tradition to manipulating more upscale fabrics; taking velvet, for example, throwing it in the washer, applying a devore printing process, which burns out some of the fibers in a design, and then dyeing it.

The success of some designers and the notice that has come to their work will probably stimulate other designers to enter this field. But not all native people appreciate what the designers are doing; some people object to the use of cultural material in their work. The designers respond that many nonnative companies are promoting their versions of aboriginal art and making a profit. They believe it is better for them to create these styles than to have it be done by those who do not know and respect the culture. Native designers, they say, are very aware of what lines that they cannot cross.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Berlo Janet, and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Find in Library Conn Richard. Robes of White Shell and Sunrise. Personal Decorative Arts of the Native American. Denver, CO: Denver Art Museum, 1974.

Donahue Mary. “Modern American Fashion Design American Indian Style.” In PART, online journal of the City University of New York’s Ph.D. program in art history.

Find in Library Her Many Emil. Identity by Design. New York: Harper Collins; and Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2007.

Find in Library Native American Expressive Culture. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, AKWE:KON Press, and the National Museum of the American Indian, 1994.

Find in Library Wood Margaret. Native American Fashion: Modern Adaptations of Traditional Designs. Phoenix, AZ: Native American Fashions, 1997.

See also Western Wear.