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Jessica Metcalfe on “Native American Fashion from the 1940s to the Present, and into the Future”

Now that Jessica Metcalfe is living back on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, the “super important fashion Mecca,” as she puts it, it’s a special treat to see her down in Santa Fe. The School of Advanced Research (SAR) organized her talk at the New Mexico History Museum—their talks have become so popular audiences can no longer squeeze into their auditorium at the SAR campus. Metcalfe earned her PhD in Native American fashion from Arizona State University, and in recent years she has become a force for Native fashion.

Metcalfe began with a quick history of Native fashion since the 1940s, beginning with Lloyd Kiva New, Cherokee from Oklahoma, who founded a wildly successful fashion studio in Scottsdale, Arizona. He sold to Neiman Marcus and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wore his designs. He was the first Native American to participate in an international fashion show: the 1951 Atlantic City International Fashion Show. His studio had 15 assistants, and New collaborated with such prominent artists as Andrew Van Tsinhnahjinnie (Navajo) and Charles Loloma (Hopi). The Heard Museum just acquired hundreds of fabric swatches from Lloyd’s studio.

“Lloyd believed the oldest art form across all cultures was personal adornment,” Metcalfe says, and continues, “He felt Native cultures were essential to American identity.” He flourished as a Native designer during a time when the United States Indian Policy was actively terminating tribes, trying to assimilate Native peoples into mainstream culture, and relocating families away from their tribal homelands.

Jessica Metcalfe at Beyond Buckskin's
"Pop Up Boutique" at the MOCNA
New took his philosophy about Native art and identity to Santa Fe, where he co-founded the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1962. That first decade is known as the “Golden Years,” when textile arts and fashion design were essential parts of the academic program.

Wendy Ponca (Osage) became the main fashion instructor at IAIA from 1983 to 1993. “As Indians,” Metcalfe quoted Ponca, “we are furthering tradition.” Ponca created body art based on Osage cosmology, almost a lost art—in the 1980s only one elder had traditional tattooing. The spider, in particular, was tattooed on the back of women’s hands. Wendy used both spider and snake imagery in fashion.

Ponca co-founded “Native Uprising,” the Native American fashion designer collective in the 1980s—featuring Ponca, Marcus American (Choctaw), Pilar Agoyo (Ohkay Owingeh), and many other talented IAIA students and alumnae. Their innovative creations forced SWAIA to create new categories in the 1990s.

Fast forward to Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo), first Native American to be featured on Project Runway. Michaels studied with Ponca at IAIA and then went on to Lloyd Kiva New’s alma mater, the Chicago Art Institute. While even today her creations are criticized for “not being ‘Indian’ enough,” she won the 2011 SWAIA Indian Market classification for textiles. Starting with plain cloth, akin to a blank canvas, Michaels hand paints designs on her fabric. Michaels keeps demolishing barriers—becoming the first Native American to participate in Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) is a fashion designer that draws inspiration from Cochiti pottery designs. These are heavily influenced by oral history, so he retells stories with his clothing design, for instance, reimagining the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Ortiz is interested in “collapsing time.” Jessica quotes him: “We must understand ourselves as embodying past, present, and future.”

Jessica Metcalfe shifted the focus of her talk to her new personal project, Beyond Buckskin, launched in 2009 with a whopping $100. With a vision statement to “empower Native artists and design,” she first started a blog to educate the public about Native fashion, sharing the history and profiling designers.

Misappropriation of traditional Indigenous aesthetics has emerged as a major focus. Paul Frank, back in September, posted a thousand photos on Facebook from their “powwow party” which featured rainbow dyed chicken feather headdresses and faux tomahawks. A flood of complaints convinced the company to pull the photos from the web in 24 hours. Metcalfe followed up with an open letter to the company addressing the racism and troubling imagery from their faux Indian party. She was shocked when the President of Paul Frank apologized, contracted her directly, and wanted to talk. After the discussions, the Paul Frank company actually agreed to collaborate with four Native American designers, and in fact, one of their representatives was in the audience. The new designs will be unveiled in August.

On May 7, 2012, Metcalfe created a boutique space. She kept encouraging people to wear clothing and accessories created by Native designers, and she was constantly asked, “Where do we buy them?” So an online boutique was the perfect mechanism to bring designers with the public. Now Beyond Buckskin showcases 30 different designers ranging from affordable street wear to high-end couture.

Just launched on March 12 in Las Vegas, Beyond Buckskin Lookbook is a landmark publication, featuring over 15 Native designers, since, as Metcalfe says, “This needs to be a movement.”