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"The Art of Indigenous Fashion" exhibit at the Institute of American Indian Arts' Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Photo by Nicole Lawe, Institute of American Indian Arts.

The 'art and glamour' of Native American fashion

Museum of Contemporary Native Arts’ Indigenous fashion exhibition open until Jan. 2023

On Friday, Aug. 19, the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe opened its “Art of Indigenous Fashion” exhibition, which features works from Indigenous designers across North America. The exhibition is the first of its kind for the museum, disrupting the idea of Indigenous clothing as artifact rather than fashion.

Amber-Dawn Bear Robe — curator, art historian and professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts — curated the exhibition with the specific goals of amplifying the work of Indigenous designers and showcasing the diversity of Native fashion.

“My goal with the exhibition is to give a different perspective into Indigenous fashion; a fuller perspective, but also an internal worldview, which means talking to the designers, making sure that the stories they want to be told are told, and to also give a snapshot of the diversity of Indigenous fashion and the importance of Indigenous fashion (within) American fashion,” Bear Robe said.

The response to the exhibition has been overwhelmingly positive and has even sparked questions like “why haven’t we seen this before?,” according to Bear Robe. Inquiries like these point to the art culture of Santa Fe and how the work of Indigenous artists is often viewed differently than that of their counterparts who aren’t Native.

“Tradition is always changing … The way that Native fashion and art have been framed has been from an anthropological, non-Native, generally white worldview … If you have a dress from the 1800s (by) a European or a Parisian designer, that wouldn't be classified as an ethnographic artifact, right? It’s seen as a historical item of fashion, whereas, when you look at a garment that's made by a Native designer in the 1800s, it's seen as an artifact, something that is the most authentic and true representation of Indian garments,” Bear Robe said.

The importance of the “Art of Indigenous Fashion” exhibition comes down to representation, a sentiment echoed by Orlando Dugi, a Santa Fe-based designer featured in the exhibition, according to Bear Robe. 

“When we do get a spotlight, usually it's more like we’re the token put on a pedestal and (people say), ‘oh look at these Natives, they can come and do these things.’ I'm torn between saying it's insulting, and at the same time you also are kind of thankful because you're given a little spot, and some people may take it because they know they’re not always given that chance,” Dugi said.

Both Dugi and Bear Robe hope to see Native fashion continue to gain momentum and take center stage in the mainstream world of fashion.

“Ideally, I would like this show to be in a non-Native institution to reach a larger (and) different audience … The importance is representation; representation is everything,” Bear Robe said.

Dugi said that as Native fashion continues to grow, he would like to see Native designers have their own additional avenues of representation.

“(I want us to) have our own fashion weeks, our own fashion council, because it's important to be able to show our younger selves that things like that are possible now,” Dugi said.

The “Art of Native Fashion” exhibition will be held at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts until Jan. 8, 2023.

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Sierra Martinez is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at culture@dailylobo.com

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