Much of Native American fashion is deeply rooted in tradition and history. So much more than just ethnic dress, the clothes tell stories and mark status in unique ways.

Indeed, modern fashion has borrowed many ideas from Native American design, such as beading on shirts (Native Youth Magazine). The “Native Fashion Now” exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City showcases designers that combine tradition and history with the present. Curated by Karen Kramer, Peabody Essex Museum curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture, the themes of the show include “Pathbreakers,” “Revisitors,” “Activators,” and “Provocateurs,” with nearly 70 featured objects.

Some designers choose to directly connect back to historic styles by including authentic natural embellishments to their dresses, as seen with the Elk Tooth dress by Bethany Yellowtail (Fig. 1). The “Desert Heat” dress (Fig. 2) by Orlando Dugi is inspired by fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino, but also by his Diné grandmother (Label text). “Native Fashion Now,” 2017, National Museum of the American Indian, New York). The feather details, combined with embellishments of Italian lace, draw together two different cultures and create something bold and exquisite. 

The exhibition also includes some examples of direct collaborations between designers, as seen in the boots designed by Christian Louboutin decorated by Jamie Okuma (Fig. 3). The resulting pieces are beautifully done, with designs that celebrate their individual cultures and bring awareness to how intricately woven Native American fashion is within our own society today.

Old Time Floral Elk Tooth dress

Fig. 1 - Bethany Yellowtail (Apsáalooke [Crow] and Northern Cheyenne). Old Time Floral Elk Tooth dress, 2014. Lace, leather appliqué, and elk teeth. Salem, Massachusetts: Peabody Essex Museum, 2015.22.1. Source: Committee for Cultural Policy

The show opened February 17, 2017 and runs until September 4, 2017 in New York City, which is the final stop on its exhibition tour.

Cape and dress from “Desert Heat” Collection

Fig. 2 - Orlando Dugi (Diné (Navajo)). Cape and dress from “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012. Paint, silk, organza, feathers, beads, and 24k gold; feathers.. Salem, Massachusetts. Photography by Thosh Collins: Peabody Essex Museum. Source: Committee for Cultural Policy


Fig. 3 - Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013-14. Glass beads on boots designed by christian louboutin. Salem, Massachusetts: Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver. Museum commission with support from Katrina Carye, John Coruby, Dan Elias and Karen Keane, Cynthia Gardner, Merry Glosband, and Steve and Ellen Hoffman. Source: The Smithsonian Institution

  • Label text. Desert Heat, 2012. Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]). “Native Fashion Now,” 2017, National Museum of the American Indian, New York.
  • “Native American Fashion.” Native Youth Magazine. Accessed July 2017.