‘Native Haute Couture’ Showcases Elaborate Designs, Craftsmanship

Native Americans' sense of fashion and refined adornment takes center stage in an exhibition called "Native Haute Couture" that digs deep into the collection of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian.

The exhibit features stylish garments made both before and after contact with Europeans, and it gives evidence about how indigenous people maintained their identity as their clothing transformed with new materials and ideas.

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We first reported on this story last spring, and revisit it now.

Below, photos from the exhibition:


An exhibition in Evanston illustrates that Native Americans have long been passionate about fashion.

The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian has dug deep into its collection and brought to light custom clothing and adornments, skillfully made garments that are cherished at both ceremonies and the runway.

Phil Ponce: From elk teeth and porcupine quills to woven fabric, beads and animal hide. For centuries, Native American artisans have made exquisite designs from whatever materials were at hand.

The exhibition “Native Haute Couture” displays examples of late 19th and early 20th century garments and accessories from tribes across the U.S. and Canada.

Kathleen McDonald, Mitchell Museum of the American Indian: You’ll see things from arctic regions all the way down to the Seminole dress from Florida.

Janelle Stanley, curator: We have at least 10,000 items within the collection.

KM: We have so many pieces that are so uniquely designed and crafted and have such a high level of craftsmanship. Some of these pieces take hundreds and thousands of hours to create.

PP: Most items on view are not every day outfits and jewelry, but were made for special occasions and people of honor.

JS: Mostly the leaders within the communities wore the more elaborate garments.

You might have been a very higher status member but you had a responsibility to provide for the rest of the community too, so not only were you at a higher status and given more responsibility you also had to make sure you looked out for the rest of the community.

We were wanting to highlight native fashion in the sense of before contact, meaning European contact.

PP: Native Americans also embraced new crafts from Europe, including metalwork, and beads which often replaced the quillwork in their earlier designs.

The designs helped identify the wearer.

JS: Whether that was by a bead design utilized for their specific tribe or a technique, and definitely symbols. Symbols could be a spiritual connection, could also represent clans within the family unit.

KM: A lot of the regional differences between the designs and the types of materials being used are shown in what people are choosing to put into the more elaborate outfits and regalia. Those materials are important materials to express their culture locally but they also sometimes incorporate pieces that express their trade capacity, the ability to bring macaw feathers from South America all the way up to the Plains. To me, that’s a very impressive feat to do when you don’t have cars or trains for transit.

PP: Whether modern or traditional, Native designers have kept their cultural identity alive within the world of high fashion.

KM: It’s very interesting how so much the interplay of cultures takes place but what they’re producing is very obvious to still maintaining native culture. The beadwork that comes in, the different mass-manufactured cloth material that comes in, the metalworking that comes in, they really make it their own unique Native American designs and styles.

You can visit the "Native Haute Couture" exhibition at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian. The museum is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; and noon-4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed Monday. For directions, fees and more information, visit the museum's website.

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