The Art of Indigenous Fashion


Celebrate the Creativity and Excitement of Style at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico
by Debbie Stone


Santa Fe is a hotbed for art and the number of galleries and museums dedicated to this aesthetic is staggering. Visitors and locals enjoy a feast for the senses with such bounty available at their fingertips. Among the many options is the IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) Museum of Contemporary Native Art. Located in the heart of the city, steps away from the historic Plaza, this museum has the distinction of being the country’s only museum for exhibiting, collecting, and interpreting the most progressive work of contemporary Native artists.

Currently showing is “The Art of Indigenous Fashion,” an exhibition offering insights into the approaches and perspectives of Indigenous designers beyond the visual and material qualities of their work. Indigenous designers have been making clothing and personal adornment for the ages and they can be regarded as the “original haute couture artists of the Americas.”

“The inspiration was to present a snapshot of Native North American fashion from an Indigenous perspective, showcasing designers that are often overlooked in mainstream media,” explains Amber-Dawn Bear Robe, guest curator of the exhibit. She says that the aim was “to present the diversity of narratives created by Native designers and show how every design has a story and meaning beyond visual beauty.” Bear Robe adds, “There are all these histories, nuances, and stories that have not been written about – that have not come to the surface.” She hopes that the exhibit will help fill some of these knowledge gaps.

  • Armored Beauty by Decontie & Brown
    Armored Beauty by Decontie & Brown


Over twenty leading contemporary indigenous designers from Canada and the U.S. are represented in the show. Their work is loosely organized by period and theme. Some designs are a nod to historical and current issues, while others revolve around culture and identity. Several designers use fashion as a platform for social activism. The exhibit clearly proves that Indigenous design isn’t one specific thing but rather greatly varies depending on an artist’s tribe, location, and style.

Highlights, of which there are many, present pieces that fuse traditional craft approaches with a contemporary viewpoint. Examples include Marcus Amerman’s black leather jacket with a beaded image of a nude Brook Shields sporting butterfly wings, Teri Greeves’s eye-catching hand-beaded Converse heels, and Jamie Okuma’s ribbon skirt. The latter was on the cover of Instyle’s August 2021 issue, featuring Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Okuma sewed over 150 yards of individual silk ribbons on the skirt to show a modern version of what Native people of her culture use to wear at social gatherings.

Other designs of note are Decontie & Brown’s “Armored Beauty,” Sho Sho Esquiro’s “Worth Our Wait in Gold,” Orlando Dugi’s “the Red Collection – Look No. 2” Lesley Hampton’s “Emmy Dress” and “It’s Our DNA, It’s Who We Are,” by Anita Fields. In “Armored Beauty,” Decontie & Brown upcycled a wedding dress to represent female empowerment in response to the touch-detecting “smart dress” made by researchers with sensor technology that showed how often and where a woman is touched without consent. The designers put protective spikes in those areas on the upcycled gown.

Sho Sho Esquiro’s gown incorporates silk, beaver, gold beads, pearls, abalone, and wool to address murdered and missing Indigenous women in Vancouver, Canada. The serial killer who had targeted Native women in this area for over a decade was finally caught.

It’s hard not to be attracted to Orlando Dugi’s vivid red outfit made with cochineal-dyed silk organza and beading. The cochineal beetle is responsible for the red color, which has been used by Indigenous cultures and is prominent in Navajo textiles.

You might recognize Lesley Hampton’s “Emmy Dress,” which was worn by Indigenous actress Kawennahere Devery Jacobs, a member of the cast of the T.V. show, “Reservation Dogs” at last spring’s Emmy Awards. The tulle and sequined gown with beadwork and ostrich feathers was made for Devery Jacobs and it hit many top best-dressed lists.

An Osage wedding coat and hat are the focus of Fields’ creation. Elements in the design refer to issues faced by Osage people today. The interior of the coat is a collage of images printed on silk that depict historical scenes. Printed inside is the Treaty of 1808 when the Osage Indians ceded almost 2.5 million acres.

Though the exhibit takes mainstage prominence, make sure you check out the other current exhibits in the museum, including “Matrilineal: Legacies of Our Mothers,” featuring the art of three generations of Myskoke (Creek) mothers and daughters; “The Stories We Carry,” a compilation of jewelry made by more than a hundred Indigenous artists from the museum’s permanent collection; and “Athena LaTocha: Mesabi Redux,” a series of cast iron reliefs that the artist did during a residency at iron deposits in the Mesabi Mountain Range of northern Minnesota, the location of the world’s third largest open-pit ore mine.

“The Art of Indigenous Fashion” runs through January 15, 2023. For more information:

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness, and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and all seven continents.




About the Author:

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners.

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