Shattering Stereotypes at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Native Fashion Now Exhibit

The Peabody Essex Museum is no stranger to mounting thought provoking exhibitions on Native American Art. Thanks in part to its favorable location in Salem and to the elite members of the East India Marine Society—the Peabody Essex’s founding institution—who began amassing much of the museum’s 20,000 works made by Native Americans, the museum is now home to oldest-ongoing collection of Native American art in the United States.

In recent years, exhibitions such as Intersections, Native American Art in a New Light and Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, have shattered many stereotypes and preconceived ideas of what Native American art is or should be.

Currently on view at the museum is Native Fashion Now, a survey of contemporary Native American fashion spanning the last 60 years. Billed as the first large-scale exhibit of its kind, I had been looking forward to Native Fashion Now since December 2011 when Curator of Native American Art and Culture, Karen Kramer first hinted at it during the press preview for her excellent exhibit Shapeshifting.

Organized into themes, the nearly 100 garments and accessories on view illustrate the vitality and creativity of Native American artists and designers. While it is an exhibit about the work of Native American artists, select pieces by non-native designers such as Isaac Mizrahi, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan are smartly integrated within these themes, commenting on how these designers have been influenced by traditional Native American design motifs and cultures.

There were many statement pieces in the exhibit such as Isaac Mizrahi’s iconic “Totem Pole Dress” and David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin’s “Postmodern Boa,” but it was the shoes that made a lasting impression on me (of course, being me, it had to be the shoes!). Among the shoes in the exhibit, Jamie Okuma’s boots by Christian Louboutin are the most exquisite for their color combination and delicate craftsmanship. Hand-stitched by Okuma herself with antique 1880s glass beads creating a bold design inspired by motifs common to Western tribal communities. Nicholas Galanin’s hand-made shoes of leather and engraved with copper armor detail on the quarter of the shoe are another standout in the exhibit, along with Louie Gong’s Converse “Spirit Wolf” Chuck Taylors.

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Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013–14. Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. Museum commission with support from Katrina Carye, John Curuby, Dan Elias and Karen Keane, Cynthia Gardner, Merry Glosband, and Steve and Ellen Hoffman, 2014.44.1AB. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

The exhibit does not disappoint and surprised me in ways unexpected. I think the biggest surprise for me was the entrance to the exhibit gallery, which really sets the tone for the rest of the show. With the unconventional designs of Patricia Michaels, Project Runway’s Season 11 runner-up, the moment one walks into this first gallery is the moment our preconceived notions of what Native American fashion is are shattered.

Native Fashion Now is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA until March 6, 2016. It will then travel to the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, OR, the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK and finally, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, so if you’re traveling to any of these cities, you’ll have to catch the show there, that’s if you’re unable to see it at the Peabody Essex Museum.

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Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]) Cape, dress, and headdress from “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012 Paint, silk, organza, feathers, beads, and 24k gold; feathers; porcupine quills and feathers Courtesy of the designer, Santa Fe. Hair and Makeup: Dina DeVore. Model: Julia Foster. Photo by Unék Francis.

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David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin (Diné [Navajo])/Picuris Pueblo) Postmodern Boa, 2009 Stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel paint, and feathers Courtesy the designers Courtesy of the designers and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. Model: Tazbah Gaussoin.

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