Native Designers of High Fashion: Expressing Identity, Creativity, and Tradition in Contemporary Customary Clothing Design


American Indian traditional art forms have been reincarnated by contemporary Native designers and placed on human bodies in the form of haute couture. This project examines culture and identity through a historical and sociocultural analysis of contemporary Native American clothing design. This project focuses on the use of clothing design and adornment to promote cultural traditions and maintain a 'Native' identity. I equate this communicative use of design with the traditional role of storytelling: it allows Native designers to express, interrogate and subvert notions of Indianness; to create and perpetuate cultural traditions; to enhance aesthetic aspects of dress design; and to build and maintain community.

This project explores the world of Native high fashion, and provides a cultural contextualization and analysis pertaining to identity, creativity, and tradition. I hypothesize that these contemporary designers continue the long practice of incorporating the new with the old, and, in effect, creatively carry on their cultural traditions. Whether they update Native clothing styles of the 1800s, or Indianize contemporary fashion, these designers explore how modern cuts and materials can be blended with traditional cultural design concepts and symbols to create unique, expertly constructed, artistic, and highly valued garments. These artists have taken up new materials to display their traditional art forms in innovative ways to uphold and maintain their unique cultures, and to celebrate their heritage by educating a non-Indian buying public.

Using an interdisciplinary approach, I attempt to gain an insider's understanding of Native fashion by interviewing principle actors in the industry, by observing and participating in cultural and trade events, and by researching its history in archived records, stories and garments. The goal of this research is to add to the sparse literature on Native clothing, art, creativity, and identity by providing the only comprehensive critical scholarship on contemporary Native American fashion design.



Jessica Metcalfe


Nancy Parezo






AAT 3407963
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences