Vintage Indigenous Fashion Design in North America

We discovered some wonderful Native American and Mexican designers this week who made names for themselves in the mid to late 20th century. We also researched the history of Cowichan sweaters made by the Coast Salish and looked at a famous fashion accessory that was inspired by Cherokee culture and made for the Native American Education Service. Read below to see what we found out. 

Lloyd Henri Kiva New

Lloyd Henri Kiva New was a pioneer of modern Native American fashion design and cofounder of The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in New Mexico. He is referred to as the “Godfather of Native Fashion”.
He was born in Oklahoma in 1916. His father was of Scottish descent and his mother was Cherokee.
He studied art education and began a career as a painting teacher. He then joined the US Navy during WW2. 
He moved to Scottsdale after the war and opened a fashion boutique. He called his label Kiva and it first focused on leather goods, later expanding to a full clothing line. He collaborated with major Native American artists and his brand flourished throughout the 40s and 50s. 
New became the first Native American to show at an international fashion show in 1951 with his participation in the Atlantic City International Fashion Show.
Lynn Freyse wore a Kiva dress during the Miss America competition in 1957. 
He also sold his designs to the Neiman-Marcus department store. 
The Lloyd Kiva Studio built an affluent clientele and earned national acclaim for handbags, clothing, and printed textiles.
He cofounded IAIA in 1962 to teach young Native American students how to make a living through their arts. New wanted art to be a larger dialogue, relevant to Native Americans and to people who are not Native American.
“Indian artists have been designers forever,” said Lloyd Kiva New. “At present, the institute is to train fine artists. Just think what we could contribute if we launched a series of programs in the area of design. Ultimately, we would have a whole new set of Indian furniture designers, fabric designers, fashion designers.”
New retired from IAIA in 1978, but served as president emeritus. The American Craft Council declared him an honorary fellow in 1976, and the city of Santa Fe declared him a "Living Treasure" in 1989. He was an adviser to the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Art Institute of Chicago bestowed an honorary doctorate upon him in 2000.
Upper-class Anglo women wore his garments made with Native American designs in a time when Native cultures were being smothered out and dissolved into American cities through relocation and termination government policies. He expressed his ideas as to the importance of Native cultures (especially the importance of Native contributions to American society and identity). Throughout his career, New incorporated Native design concepts, including symbols, materials, silhouettes, cuts, and colour palettes, from various tribes, sometimes combining them, to create items that would work within Anglo American paradigms of gender, class, and ethnicity. New acknowledged social limitations and cultural expectations and worked within these frameworks to create new possibilities for Native people.
He passed away in 2002. 
His work was featured in The Met’s Anthology of Fashion exhibit this year. 

Lloyd Kiva New

Remonia Jacobsen

Remonia Jacobsen grew up in Oklahoma and started sewing at a young age. 
She moved to Colorado in the mid-70s and wanted to pursue fashion as a career. She began presenting her work through fashion shows. For over two years, she participated in a programme on KKTV dedicated to broadcasting Native American culture. She built a successful company, motivated by a desire to share her culture with others. 
She organized and hosted Powwows in Colorado and created her daughters’ powwow outfits. She became well-versed in a variety of different tribal traditional garment-making techniques and styles.
She distributed her designs in outlets throughout America. 
About Native fashion, Jacobsen stated, “Indian fashion is very much alive and real today. Both the Indian person and the non-Indian person are keenly aware of the Indian concepts of simplicity, durability, versatility and beauty shown in the fashion. I try to relay these concepts in the fashions I design. Using a traditional theme, I develop a fashion for today.” Jacobsen both played on and challenged the stereotypes of Indians as being close with nature. The majority of Jacobsen’s garments were long loose-fitting dresses featuring Sioux, Otoe, Iowa, Seminole, Kiowa, and Pueblo designs, decorative techniques, and silhouettes. 
By the late 1970s, she demonstrated how Native women could take fashion in new directions, while still retaining their essential identity symbols.
Fueled by the American Indian and Civil Rights Movement, countercultural consumers found appeal in Jacobsen's work. Furthermore, their fashion fostered a 'pan-indian' unity in the quest for political power through self-expression.

The above info was taken from BeyondBuckskin.com- a website about Native American fashion run by Jessica Metcalfe. 

Remonia Jacobsen

Remonia Jacobsen

Wendy Ponca

Wendy Ponca is an Osage artist and fashion designer, born in Texas in 1960. 
She won first place awards for her contemporary Native American fashion from the Santa Fe Indian Market each year between 1982 and 87. 
She studied traditional techniques at the Institute of American Indian Arts, as well as going on to study in New York, Greece, Kansas City and the Southwestern College of Santa Fe. 
She began her career as a costume designer for the Santa Fe opera in 1982. Simultaneously, she founded Waves of the Earth Fashion Group to market her fashion designs. She then began teaching at IAIA. Ponca and her students put on and participated in fashion shows.
In the 1980s, she co-founded Native Influx (later, Native Uprising), whose focus was on creating a platform for Native Americans to compete in the fashion industry while marrying innovative new design with American Indian customary symbols and cultural practices. It established Santa Fe as the centre for Native American haute couture.
In the 1990s, she incorporated Mylar, a polyester film first used in space travel, into her fashion designs. Its draping qualities, the sound it made when a model walked, and its symbolic relationship to the sky fit her fashion collection that reflected the Sky and Earth moieties of Osage people. 
In 1995, Ponca was commissioned to create four blankets by Pendleton Woolen Mills for a special edition series.
After a stint teaching at theUniversity of Las Vegas, Ponca moved to Fairfax, Oklahoma, and has continued to design and exhibit her creations.
Ponca's collection ‘Wedding Clothes of the Earth and Sky People’ was exhibited at the Osage Tribal Museum in 2013.
Ponca is still working today and she currently has her work on permanent display at various American museums including the Smithsonian.
“I want to preserve my traditional culture, while reflecting the signs of contemporary America.” - Wendy Ponca.   

Wendy Ponca

Cowichan Sweaters 

Cowichan sweater’s are very popular vintage Winter items. But what is the history of this garment?
The Cowichan Sweater (named after the Cowichan people of Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island) is an iconic First Nation Clothing item with a fascinating history.
Warm and water-resistant, the Cowichan Sweater is an ideal garment for coastal BC and became a symbol for British Columbia and, more broadly, Canada. Canadian Prime Ministers, US Presidents, Hollywood stars, and members of the British Royal family have all been photographed wearing Cowichan sweaters.
Traditional Coast Salish blankets had been a valuable form of trade currency. They were woven from the now extinct hair of the Salish wool dog. During the 19th century, cheap mass produced trade blankets made by the Hudson’s Bay Company gradually replaced traditional blankets, which left an economic gap in Coast Salish communities. 
Cowichan knitting is an accultured art form, a combination of European textile techniques and Salish spinning and weaving methods.
Knitting, along with domestic sheep, was introduced by European settlers in the 1850s and Coast Salish (including Cowichan) women adapted their skills and began knitting sweaters and trading them with their non-native neighbours. 
The teaching of patterned sweater knitting is generally attributed to a settler from the Shetland Islands named Jerimina Colvin.
The form was the traditional European cardigan sweater, but the designs knitted into the garment were such Salish motifs as eagles and whales.
Contemporary Cowichan sweaters are knit from natural, hand spun, undyed sheep’s wool. They are bulky with shawl collars, a two or three-way colour design, fastened with buttons or a zipper and ornamented with indigenous or sporting motifs. 
They are marketed nationally and internationally.
There was an increase in popularity in these sweaters in the 1970s and not being able to keep up with demand, knock-off versions became abundant. Other manufacturers and sellers were able to sell their versions of the sweater at lower prices, undercutting Cowichan knitters, making it hard for them to earn enough money off of the sales of genuine Cowichan sweaters. 
A “Genuine Cowichan Approved” certification was created in 1997. The Cowichan Tribes registered “Cowichan”, “Genuine Cowichan”, and “Genuine Cowichan Approved” as trademarks for goods that “have been hand-knit in one piece in accordance with the traditional tribal methods by members of the Coast Salish Nation using raw, unprocessed, undyed, hand-spun wool, also made and prepared in accordance with traditional tribal methods.”
Controversially, Hudson’s Bay Company began producing these sweaters for the 2010 Canadian Winter Olympic’s team. Due to time constraints, Coast Salish knitters were overlooked and the contract went to Hudson’s Bay, which was a significant blow to indigenous producers. Legal action was considered and in the end, a compromise was made between the parties; knitters would have an opportunity to sell their sweaters at the downtown Vancouver HBC store, alongside the imitations. 

Yam Magazine have a great article on their website about the tradition of Cowichan knitting. In an interview with knitters, it is explained that you can't really make a living off of it as one sweater can take up to 50 hours to make and the wool costs $30 a pound with a sweater taking 6 pounds. Numbers of knitters are unfortuneatley dwindling with one estimate putting the total at 24. 

Cowichan Sweaters

Frankie Welch 

Frankie Welsh was Born in Georgia in 1924. She self-identified as having Cherokee ancestry. 
After studying design at university of Wisconsin, she began her career in teaching and was awarded by a Teen magazine the "Outstanding Home Economics Teacher of the Nation" and given a trip to visit the fashion houses of Paris and Rome. 
She opened a clothing store in Alexandria, Virginia in 1963. The following year, she was marketing her adaptable ‘Frankie’ dress nationwide. 
She began mingling with Washington’s elite women at functions and began consulting them on fashion. She soon switched to design when she had garnered a healthy clientele. 
In 1967, as part of an initiative for the Native American education service, she designed a scarf featuring the Cherokee syllabary. Welch donated one dollar from the purchase of each scarf to the higher education fund of the Eastern Cherokee. Welch, who had seen the alphabet in a book that recorded the history of her hometown, considered it “the original American language.” She crafted graphic, sinuous characters on ivory silk, framing them in rich earth tones. The print was an instant hit, growing so popular that she adapted it into the form of flowing, belted dresses, longer scarves, and coat linings. Cherokee Nation Principal Chiefs W. W. Keeler and Wilma Mankille, along with the activist LaDonna Harris, cherished and wore Welch’s alphabet design. Harris, who became a friend to Welch, even stated that her Cherokee Alphabet design was an inventive “conversation piece” for Native American causes.
The scarf caught the attention of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. It became a featured item at the first fashion show ever held at the White House and was chosen to be framed and hung in American embassies under the Art in Embassies program.
She went on to design scarves for various political figures including Richard Nixon.
Welch spotlighted another Georgia symbol, the humble peanut, for President Jimmy Carter’s political campaigns. For the first version of the design, organic forms of overlapping tan peanuts debuted for Carter’s 1973 gubernatorial run, and his wife, Rosalynn, proudly wore a long dress with the pattern. 
After the Nixon resignation in 1974, First Lady Betty Ford wore a Welch design to greet the press. Her official photograph was taken in a Welch dress made of green silk. 
Over the next 20 years, she would design numerous scarves and bags for various corporations and associations, as well as continuing to service the White House with her designs. 
Her shop closed in 1990 but she continued to design and teach courses for several more years.
In 2016, a dress designed for First Lady Betty Ford, part of the collection of the Gerald R. Ford presidential library, toured the country in the Native Fashion Now exhibit sponsored by the National Museum of American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan and the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachussetts. The pink brocade dress was designed for the 1974 White House Christmas Party.
“Her scarves constitute a unique body of work in the history of American fashion,” biographer Ashley Callahan writes. “They are a distinct and delightful expression of Americana.”
Welch passed away in 2021. 

Frankie Welch

Dolores Gonzales

Dolores Gonzales was a Mexican-Americsan fashion designer based in Tucson, Arizona. She immigrated to the states in 1911, fleeing the civil unrest caused by the Mexican Revolution. 
She worked at Phiffer’s in LA for 17 years, where she assisted designers. 
Her sister opened a dress shop called Irene Page in Tucson, where she experimented with “Broomstick” skirts- one and two-piece dresses that featured a full skirt and were made in bright, colourful fabrics.
Dolores took over the business during WW2 and renamed it the Dolores Shop. Dolores maintained a factory (Dolores Resort Wear) and helped lead the creation of a distinct regional fashion that took the country by storm
She was making 60 dresses a day by 1954 and received orders from all over the world. In 1956, a Los Angeles Times Reporter dubbed her "The Dior of the Desert." The dresses sold for between $800 and $2400 in today’s dollars.
Famous individuals, such as Mamie Eisenhower, Pat Nixon and Cyd Charisse were known to have bought Gonzales' dresses.
She is best known for blending Native American and Mexican clothing traditions to create distinctive southwest resort wear dresses known originally as the controversially named squaw dresses, but today referred to as patio dresses or fiesta dresses. The iconic design was copied by many other designers and became synonymous with mid-twentieth century American Southwest fashion, eventually becoming the official dress of the square-dancing movement. 
The look captured a push toward the modern while combining the old and new into something fresh.
This type of dress, though, wasn’t an entirely new idea. Native Americans had long been wearing broomstick and tiered skirts, and the late, legendary dress-shop owner Cele Peterson, who opened her first store in 1931, recalled selling them in the early ’30s. But it was Gonzales’ special touches that helped the dresses become popular years later.
Her husband convinced her to close the store in 1962, foreseeing an end to the trend in these dresses.
Dolores passed away in California in 1994. 

Dolores Gonzales

Patio Dresses

Let's take a closer look at the dress made so popular by designers like Dolores Gonzales and that put Arizona firmly on the fashion map.

The design:

The dress could be either one or two pieces, with a two piece "dress" consisting of a skirt and a blouse. They were made with cotton or calico print. The skirt part of the dress is pleated, gathered or fully gathered with three-tiers. The dresses were often colourful and incorporated rickrack as well. The hemlines sometimes copied Native American basket designs. Many dresses would be accessorized with concho belts, squash blossom necklaces and turquoise earrings. Later versions of the dress included metallic fabrics and glitter.

The garment was described as being comfortable and flattering to most figures, according to The Arizona Republic. The dresses were lightweight and comfortable to wear on hot days. They did not require ironing. In addition, the dress could be worn for many different kinds of occasions.

The development of the look & the name:

Navajo women developed distinctive broomstick skirts based on European womens skirts of the 1870s and 1880s. Bodices and blouses worn with them reflected different origins. 

The dress was based on different types of popular Navajo, Mexican, Ohono O'odham and Western Apache dresses, as well as Dior’s New Look.  Naming the dress ‘squaw’ was likely an effort to invoke something uniquely American while ignoring the insensitivity of the word. These dresses started out as a trend in the American Southwest in the 1940s and went nationwide in the 1950s, popularized by Mexican designer Dolores Gonzales. Cherokee designer Lloyd Kiva New also made his own version of the dress. 

They went out of fashion nationally by 1960, but remained popular in the southwestern United States and also in square dancing and rodeos. Around the same time, the Native American community decried the use of the term 'squaw', which was derogatory. When the style was revisited in later decades, the dresses were labeled as "Western wear" and given new names. These dresses are today more often called patio or fiesta dresses.

Anthropologist Nancy J. Parezo of the University of Arizona wrote an article in 2009 entitled 'What's in a Name? The 1940s-50s Squaw Dress' which she writes is 'a case study of the questionable naming and the quiet, almost unnoticed, righting of a name for a Native-derived garment in the American clothing industry, the extremely popular Squaw Dress'. Her article is available to read online. 

Patio dresses

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