polo rain boots for men Honoring traditional and contemporary regalia at the Native American Clothing Contest
It is my favorite moment of Indian Market.
Adorable tiny tots, beautiful children, handsome men and gorgeous women are all decked out in fine traditional and contemporary regalia. The wearers carry a noticeable aura of pride as they stand tall and move with elegant grace on stage in front of the overflowing audience of smiling onlookers. It is beauty embodied. It is the Native American Clothing Contest.
The genesis of this event is related to the beginning of Indian Market itself. In black and white archival photographs from early fairs, you can see artists in their traditional Pueblo or Navajo attire. When the artists came to the market, they not only brought their exquisite artwork for display and judging, but they also came wearing equally immaculate dress.
At first, informal awards were granted to the best dressed artists. From these early awards developed the competition that is presently touted as the most photographed event of the weekend. Now, it is a separate event that you do not want to miss, held on the Sunday morning of Indian Market, when dozens of marketgoers take time off from visiting booths to sit and enjoy a fabulous show.
The competition begins with some of the most memorable contestants, the tiny tots in the traditional category, and it continues on through all the age groups to the adults. From baby bonnets to beaded moccasins, all the clothing is a delight for the eyes and spirit.
Girls and women don attire ranging from cream colored buckskin dresses embellished with flowing fringes and sparkling beaded details to exquisitely woven Pueblo mantas and Navajo rug dresses. The boys have been ceremoniously painted on the skin, and they wear garments handmade by loved ones. The contestants also carry unusual accessories, including rare eagle feather fans, Victorian lace parasols, white or rust colored moccasins and silver concho belts. Large bracelets, rings and strings of beadwork or turquoise are worn as signs of family wealth and prestige.
But this contest isn’t just a feast for the eyes; it is also a time for sharing and learning. The show’s emcee describes the garments and jewelry, explaining the history, legends and relevance of what stands before us. Clothes aren’t just things that cover our bodies and protect us from the elements; they are also embedded with symbols that reference our cultural values and who we are as a people. For example, during the contest last year, the tin cone tinklers on a dress worn by Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (Sioux Assiniboine) recalled the story of an Ojibwe grandfather who sought medicine for his granddaughter when she fell deathly ill. In a dream, he was told to create the dress and to have his granddaughter dance in it. When a person is granted a vision of this power, he or she is obligated to see it take form in this world. The grandfather followed the instructions, and his granddaughter was healed. This medicine has been passed on to this day. The healing power of the jingle dress is still called upon, and the values of dancing for our personal and communal well being are carried on from the past to future generations.
The competition can also become a performance when garments are designed for ceremonial or social dances. The contestants demonstrate their powerful regalia in motion, swirling on the stage and activating the sounds of bells or tinklers attached to their dresses.
Determining a winner is no easy task. Judges carefully score each contestant separately, and oftentimes there’s a tie. Last year, two small girls tied for the Best of Classification: Female Traditional ribbon, and when former SWAIA executive director Bruce Bernstein had to break the tie, he instead rightfully declared both girls winners. Upon this announcement, the audience cheered loudly. Dyani Pino (Santa Clara) and Lillian Jones (Kiowa) posed with their shared ribbon.
‘Wearable art’ takes the stage
The contest also features a contemporary category, which was added to the roster in response to Native American fashion designers who were turning Santa Fe into a hot fashion mecca. In the 1980s, avant garde fashion shows featuring the work of artists such as Marcus Amerman (Choctaw) and Wendy Ponca (Osage) created demand for similar exciting events at the market. SWAIA responded by establishing a new contemporary clothing category. First Nations fashion designer Sho Sho Esquiro explained, “I was really happy to see them have a contemporary category. Although I love traditional clothing and regalia, I see a need for both categories to be included.”
Up and coming Navajo designer Shayne Watson submitted an elegant white velveteen wedding gown. Inspired by traditional pleated broomstick dresses of Navajo women, this one boasted pretty turquoise accents on glimmering white velvet, a fabulous step design neckline, a three tiered full skirt and a long train trailing behind. Originally from Chinle, Arizona, Watson said he was inspired by the teachings of his grandmother; he has been designing clothes for more than seven years in the way she taught him. For Watson, contemporary fashion isn’t just an outlet for his creativity; it is a way for him to explore his cultural heritage.
Another Navajo artist, Orlando Dugi, submitted two dresses, both inspired by desert heat. “This collection is about fiery fierceness, passion and confidence,” he said, “like a Southwest sunset.” The cocktail dress and gown were cut from silk fabric. He embellished each with glass beads, Swarovski crystals and various fine stone beads and gems, alongside hackle, duck and goose feathers.
Designers jump at the opportunity to showcase their work in such an inspiring place as Santa Fe during the market, Esquiro explained, “Participation in the clothing contest helped me push myself to think outside the box. I am a competitive person, but in the end I’m just honored to have my creations on stage alongside all the amazing artists.” Esquiro, an amazing artist herself, entered a gown inspired by a Kaska Dene legend. She said, “Last year I spent 400 hours on my submission. It was adorned with over 1,000 feathers, salmon skin and lots of beadwork. This year my piece is created with silk and almost 600 pieces of abalone.”
Sun Rose Iron Shell, an emerging designer, entered the clothing contest last year for the first time. Her pieces were inspired by Northern Plains parfleche containers, which were traditionally made from rawhide that was strong enough to deflect arrows. She created a parfleche inspired hand painted corset halter top. She said, “The hand painted design is from traditional Lakota parfleche works representing AnuKite Wyan, Double Face Woman, the spirit of art. This supernatural entity is the embodiment of art and femininity.” Iron Shell’s creation, which also included matching shoes and earrings, earned an honorable mention at last year’s contest. “The four hide pieces that make up the corset are painted with this design,” she said, “and the corset is cut from a textile I created by dyeing and screen printing the fabric. The print is of a gun called the Apache folding weapon, which is a device that transforms from brass knuckles to a knife while being a six cylinder shooter. This is an image constant in my work and is my metaphor to stay sharp in this intellectual battle for our youth.”
For Navajo fashion designer and jewelry artist JT Willie, his first time participating in the Native American Clothing Contest was a memorable occasion. His gown won the Best of Class ribbon for the contemporary category. He entered a lime green ball gown made of eight band trade cloth. He adorned it with synthetic elk teeth and beadwork. “I made a matching purse, earrings and necklace to accompany the beadwork on the dress. It was indeed one of a kind,” he explained. He titled the dress Indian Girls Go to Balls Too. “I like the idea of your work being displayed on a live model,” he said, “instead of the usual way of juried markets that limit the display of art.” For designers who create wearable art, the clothing contest is perfect because other classifications do not allow the use of a mannequin unless it was made by the artist. The clothing contest allows an ensemble to be worn and seen in action.
Iron Shell added, “I would love to see the contemporary categories expanded. I believe it would spark more creativity and showmanship in Native fashion. The contemporary categories are a statement of progression and continuance. Fashion produced by Native designers keeps the identities of Native people forward moving and, most of all, not dictated by stereotypes.”
Clothing and adornment continue to be important aspects of Native American cultures, and thanks to the persistence (and creativity) of clothing makers of the past and present, fashion is claiming its place next to the other arts at Santa Fe Indian Market.
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