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PEM Showcases Contemporary Native American Fashion

If you are expecting traditional buckskin, fringe and feathers in the Peabody Essex Museum’s exhibit of Native American fashion, think again.

In “Native Fashion Now”– the first large-scale exhibit of its kind – indigenous tradition meets avant-garde fashion in unexpected and exhilarating ways. Take Jamie Okuma’s glorious beaded Louboutin boots – it took her nine months to complete the exquisite beadwork depicting swallows and colorful swirls, using antique glass bead in a kind of self-portrait.

The exhibit, which is both gorgeous and thought-provoking, features nearly 100 works, dating from the 1950’s to the present, of 75 fashion makers from the U.S. and Canada (71 of whom are living) and explores the intersection of fashion, art and identity.

According to Karen Kramer, PEM’s Curator of Native American Art and Culture, Native Americans have always used clothing as a form of expression. As home to the one of the world’s oldest and best public collections of Native Art and culture of the Americas and with a demonstrated interest in fashion following the success of Iris Apfel’s “Rare Bird of Fashion” (one of Apfel’s ensembles is included in the exhibit), PEM is a natural fit for “Native Fashion Now.”

Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]). Cape, dress, and headdress from “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012. Paint, silk, organza, feather, beads, and 24k gold; feathers; porcupine quills and feathers. Courtesy of the designer, Sante Fe. Hair and makeup: Dina DeVore. Model: Julia Foster.

photo: red formal dresses

“It was about time,” said Patricia Michaels, a fashion and textile designer and Project Runway finalist from Taos, New Mexico, expressing appreciation that Native American textiles and fashion are moving into the spotlight. Dramatically opening the exhibit is a dress by Michaels that subtly integrates hand- and machine-made materials and is at once abstract and representational. The backdrop of runway footage from Michael’s New York Fashion Week show and a ceiling of cascading parasols created by her for the exhibit set the tone for innovation and excitement. Known for her unique textile designs, Michaels is self-taught, having learned fabrication from family members in her Taos Pueblo. “Expression has meaning behind it,” she said.

The exhibit continues in four rooms organized by categories – titled Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs – each containing notable pieces. At the center of Pathbreakers are two vintage dresses by Cherokee designer Lloyd “Kiva” New, who was the first to create a successful fashion brand, marrying a native aesthetic with modern colors and textures. The first room also includes Orlando Dugi’s thrillingly stunning cape, dress and spiked headdress of porcupine quills from his Dessert Heat collection, symbolizing the night sky.

A contemporary take on a traditional blanket dress in Revisitors perfectly demonstrates how things change and how new ideas are always at work. While fashion designers have always been inspired by other cultures, the inclusion of Isaac Mizrahi’s Totem Pole dress prompts viewers to question the complicated issue of cultural appropriation.

Deceptively simple tee shirts by Jared Yazzie (one slogan says “Native Americans Discovered Columbus”) and hand-painted Chuck Taylor sneakers in the Activators room are equally as thought-provoking. Questions, both playful and serious, come to a head in the New Radicals room, highlighted by pieces such as a Tahitian bondage necklace, which juxtaposes hard stainless steel with soft pearls, by Pat Pruitt, a jeweler, metalsmith and mechanical engineer.

“Native Fashion Now” will leave viewers wondering about how what you wear can say a lot about who you are, and how even the art we think we ”know” – such as Native American art – does not remain static.

Of the artists represented, “each one comes from a beautiful journey,” said Michaels. “We are continuing the journey.”

“Native Fashion Now” is at the PEM through March 6, before traveling to Portland, Oregon, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and New York City.

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