Really Rad: Native American Fashion

First of all, there’s the uptown iridescent motorcycle jacket.

“It’s polygraphic lambskin – a really rad style, a futuristic Mad Max bomber jacket, made out of a leather that’s kind of enticing in its own materiality,” says Karen Kramer, the curator of Native American Art and Culture at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. “It’s quite beautiful.”

It’s also part of an exhibition of about 100 pieces of Native American fashion created since the 1950s, scheduled to open in the fall.

Among the works of art to be displayed are garments, accessories, ensembles, jewelry, shoes, belts, pocketbooks, scarves, T-shirts, and dresses. “There’s a whole range, from street wear to haute couture,” she says.

Kramer credits Cherokee designer Lloyd New, now known as Lloyd Kiva New because Kiva was his fashion line, with putting contemporary Native American fashion on the map, starting in the 1950s.

“He married modern fabrics with native aesthetics,” she says. “Natives had been creating  one-of-a-kind works for generations, but they largely stayed within the community.”

New was a groundbreaking designer who opened the door for more Native American designers. He collaborated with another Cherokee, Frankie Welch, who had a boutique in Alexandria, Va., styling and designing for Washington elites, including five first ladies.

“She was a success in her own right,” Kramer says.

New was hired as the first art director of the Institute for American Indian Art in Santa Fe, N.M. in 1961, and devoted his life to that endeavor. “He left the fashion design world and his boutique in Scottsdale at the height of his career,” she says. “A whole lot of Native American designers came of age in the 1980s under him.”

Their work will be in the exhibition, along with artists from the American Southeast, the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Arctic.

The show opens in Salem on Nov. 21 and runs through March 6. It will then traverse, as Fitzgerald once wrote, the round belly of the continent, with stops at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Ore.; the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla; and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

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