“Native Fashion Now,” the new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, includes a smattering of turquoise, feathers, deer hide, and the other prized elements of traditional Native American garb.
But the contemporary fashion show, which opens Saturday and runs through March 6, goes far beyond the expected, presenting contemporary and sometimes edgy clothing and accessories that bear little resemblance to any Hollywood cliché.
“We moved the audience’s perception from looking at Native American designers through an anthropological lens, or as craft, to looking at them as dynamic and evolving and not static and trapped,” said Karen Kramer, curator of Native American Art and Culture for PEM. “These active artists are agents of change.”
Kramer said inspiration for “Native Fashion Now” was twofold. It was, in part, born from the museum’s successful 2012 exhibition “Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art.” But Kramer also saw cultural and stylistic changes happening in the Native American community. A year earlier at Santa Fe Indian Market, Taos Pueblo designer Patricia Michaels paraded her modern fashions — asymmetrical tops, strapless dresses — through the city streets.
“Her work is so organic and sophisticated and ethereal, which counters traditional notions of what Native American fashion is meant to be,” said Kramer.
A single dress designed by Michaels (made for her 2013 appearance on “Project Runway”) is displayed at the entrance to the exhibition. Beneath an array of parasols PEM commissioned from Michaels for the show, the white leather dress appears to be a simple sheath. Up close, however, visitors see the leather is handpainted with an abstract New York skyline and cut to reveal cobalt blue silk, a subtle nod to the importance of water to Native American history and culture.
“Her work immediately takes us to an unexpected place far from the buckskin and beads, feather and fringe,” said Kramer.
The designs in the four galleries that follow maintain this theme. Drawing from the 1950s to current day, there are dresses, jewelry, and streetwear ranging from a sleek silver breastplate necklace made with stingray leather to an edgy black floral lace dress with elk teeth detail along the bodice and sleeves.
The beadwork is a major draw. The museum commissioned fashion artist Jamie Okuma, a Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock, who used antique beads to embellish a pair of Christian Louboutin boots with birds and abstract floral motifs inspired by the western plains. Equally stunning is the beaded neckline of a 2012 cape and dress designed by Orlando Dugi. The emerging eveningwear designer and former competitive powwow dancer brings the glamour with a bold palette and dramatic shape.
A counterbalance to Dugi’s dramatic work are the pair of vintage (1950s and ’60s) dresses in the first gallery, titled Pathbreakers. The delicate cotton styles were designed by Lloyd “Kiva” New, who is considered the father of Native American contemporary fashion, Kramer said. New built a following at Saks Fifth Avenue and among Arizona shoppers who found his muted colors and Navajo screen prints irresistible. If not for the paper-thin cotton, both of the dresses could be worn right off the mannequin today.
There are pieces that reference history more directly. Alaskan Native Chugach Aleut Denise Wallace’s silver-and-gold belt featuring basketweavers and dollmakers and made from agate and lapis is extraordinary, as is Dallin Maybee’s handpainted buffalo and dragonfly motifs on a white studded corset.
It’s here alongside these Revisitors, as the exhibition calls them, that PEM features creations by non-Native American designers Ralph Lauren and Isaac Mizrahi. Their presence is meant, in part, to spark conversations about cultural borrowing and appropriation in fashion.
“It’s a complex topic,” said Kramer. “When non-Natives use sacred objects and iconography out of context it can be controversial.”
Mizrahi’s flannel gown, for example, is embroidered as a totem pole, sculptures that honor specific Native American family histories. The dress originally hit the runway in 1991, then made the cover of Time magazine, but does it belong in a museum exhibition?
“Some people might have an issue with that,” Kramer said.
The show leaves most of the political- and social-statement-making to young Native American designers who constitute Activators, the third gallery, where visitors will see streetwear, skate culture, and a wall of sneakers that looks as much like a retail space as a gallery wall. Louie Gong distinguishes plain Converse Chuck Taylors with handpainted spirit wolf imagery while Marcus Amerman fashions his ideas about pop culture in a beaded Lone Ranger and Tonto bracelet.
The final gallery — before the exhibition comes full circle back to Michaels’s dress — is called Provocateurs, where visitors will find one-of-a-kind pieces (Wendy Red Star’s fringed buffalo dress) displayed in and around larger-than-life black lacquered boxes that look quite a bit like retail window boxes.
The setting feels big and theatrical, which seems appropriate since PEM is taking “Native Fashion Now” on the road throughout 2016 and ’17 to Oregon’s Portland Art Museum, Oklahoma’s Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York.
Native Fashion Now
At Peabody Essex Museum, Nov. 21-March 6. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org
Jill Radsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.