Released December 01, 2015
The Wall Street Journal | December 1, 2015
by Laura Jacobs
Salem, Mass. -- Native American aesthetics had a pop-culture moment in 2013. It was Season 11 of television's "Project Runway," the competition that sends fashion hopefuls through a weekly gantlet of design challenges. Instead of using fabric straight from the bolt, Patricia Michaels, a woman of Taos Pueblo heritage, created textiles of ineffable beauty, textures that would pull her into the grand finale. To the challenge that asked contestants to take their inspiration from New York City, Ms. Michaels answered with her "Cityscape" dress-white leather painted with a flock of silvery right angles, some slit to reveal a blue silk lining. This dress is the first piece on view in a new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, "Native Fashion Now," which will travel to Portland, Ore.; Tulsa, Okla; and New York.
An evocation of city windows, lighted from within and reflected in water, Ms. Michaels's dress is itself a window on the creative constants alive in Native American design: an affinity with the elemental; a sophisticated relationship with pattern and pictorial stylization; an emphasis on hand crafting; and, in the space between seeing and making, a sense of soaring. The exhibition brings these indigenous ideals to the foreground, not least because Karen Kramer, PEM's curator of Native American Art and Culture, refuses to reduce Native expression to a quiver full of fashion clichés-fringe, feathers, silver and turquoise, blankets and leather.
Dating from the 1950s to today, the garments and artifacts on display are the work of designers from a wide range of Native communities. Also included are pieces by Seventh Avenue designers -- Ralph Lauren, Isaac Mizrahi --who have fashioned their own homages to Native American aesthetics (the p.c. mind-set calls this "appropriation"). Ms. Kramer has organized the exhibition into four sections: Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs. Wall text explains that Pathbreakers "have broken ground," while Revisitors "refresh, renew, and expand on tradition." Activators "merge street wear with personal style and activism," and Provocateurs, who work at a conceptual or couture level, "expand the boundaries of what fashion can be."
Among the Pathbreakers the quiet surprise is Lloyd "Kiva" New (1916-2002, Cherokee). Known as "the father of contemporary Native American fashion," Mr. New's high-end label, Kiva, was once sold at Neiman Marcus and in boutiques around the country. He is represented by two midcentury cotton shirtwaist dresses, their silhouettes very like Christian Dior's full-skirted "New Look" but actually a nod to Navajo broomstick skirts. Mr. New liked to collaborate with other artists to create silk-screened and painted fabrics that suggest naturally abstract patterns-cliff striations, desert vegetation. The sage-green cotton of one of these dresses has been painted with delicate herds of small brown horses, an exquisitely dreamlike vision. Far more flamboyant is a 2012 evening gown by Orlando Dugi (Navajo), its watercolor silk the fiery sienna of a Monarch butterfly.
In the Revisitors gallery beading, weaving, embroidery and appliqué are in exuberant imaginative play. A dress from 2014 by Bethany Yellowtail (Crow/Northern Cheyenne) stitches elk teeth on black tulle for a graphic and rather spectral impact. And with great flair (not to mention nerve), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) has given wings to a pair of Christian Louboutin boots, sheathing them in beaded scenes of barn swallows soaring in cerulean blue skies. Across the room Mr. Mizrahi's strapless "Totem Pole" gown of 1991 is realized with life-size, large-scale embroidery, masterfully and wittily placed to accentuate female curves. More restrained and historically pure is a 2012 serape by D.Y. Begay (Navajo). Made of wool naturally dyed and woven tight, it falls away from the body in timeless folds of powerful, almost prayerful, dimension.
The setting for Activators is urban-hip, the walls painted the yellow of taxicabs and caution tape. Here Native American identity intersects with menswear. T-shirts sport historical ironies: "Native Americans Discovered Columbus." White Vans sneakers provide a canvas for stylized graffiti. And a linen blazer, painted with plains warriors on horseback-the work of Thomas Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota)-wears race memory on its sleeve.
In the gallery of Provocateurs, each work is in its own diorama, some in settings that carry a charge of surrealism. A 2009 dress of red cedar bark, by Lisa Telford (Haida), floats like a shaman in a cedar-tree forest. A woven cape and sculpted wool headpiece of 2014, byMargaret Roach Wheeler (Chickasaw), invokes a ghostly chieftain, returning as an owl. Spirits loom, thread, fly and whisper through this entire exhibition, which makes clear how little spirit, usually none, is in most of the clothes we wear.