Native American Clothing On the Wild Catwalk


Native American culture has been launched into the spotlight recently after the incredible rise of ‘The Revenant’ film and the Arikara tribe. Since the film it has been fascinating to learn some of the history about the Native American tribes and their varying cultures.

They may now be predominantly known for their involvement in the casino and gambling industry in the USA but, they have had big influences on cultures around the world, especially fashion.

Fashion designed by Native Americans is no longer a survival necessity or key tribal identification. It is now an evolving process involving young designers and is blossoming in to an industry. Genuine designs by locals are finding their way to the international stage.

Who It Was Made For and How

Tribes have a huge variety of styles dependant on what they had learnt and what kind of materials they had available to them. There is no such thing as just Native clothing as a homogenous thing. Native tribes lived in the sweltering heat as well as the coldest mountains and so the clothing is just as diverse as the landscapes they were worn in.

All of the clothing was handmade and the majority of the time it would be the women who were the seamstresses of the tribe. The majority of clothing was made from animal skins, but some tribes would adopt the use of plants and weaving thread.  It would be a long process which involved tanning the animal skin to prevent it from decomposing and then sewing the leather into the clothing. Clothing tasks were not taken lightly with massive amounts of intricate design and beading going into the work. Certain decorations would have meanings of power, stature and love.

Although these days we have much more advanced methods of making glamorous clothing, the Native Americans would once again use what was around them as decoration for their outfits. They would use feathers, wood, wampums (shells) and bones in order to make their clothing stand out. It wasn’t until after the influence of Europeans, that more prominent items like glass beads and pins would be used.

The use of beads and their patterns would hold special significance for certain items of clothing. The Beads were used as a trade between tribes as they would validate treaties. After the influx of Europeans, glass beads were used as currency and so beads on clothing was a sign of wealth. Patterns are the most recognisable element of Native American clothing and as well as an appealing image they also played a use, as it would help identify certain tribesman. Marylene Madou, a young Belgian print designer who works in London told me, “you can tell from the striking geometry and contrasting colours that identification was a key part of their design process”.

Like any other culture clothing differed depending on your sex. Clothing for Native American men would be largely dependent on the season. But generally they would wear a breechcloth, a simple piece of material which would cover their front and back. In warmer climates men would wear leggings as a source of extra warmth. Native American women mostly wear skirts and leggings along with shirts and tunics. In certain tribes like the Apache especially, women would wear long buckskin dresses.

The Clothing Today

Despite the Native American headdress being seen so often on television and burned into our cultural psyche as being specifically Native clothing, very few tribes actually wore the feathered headgear. They were mostly used for war and ceremonial activities, with a single eagle’s feather being the preferred choice.

We have seen these designs incorporated before. Chanel took inspiration from Native American designs during their ‘Metiers d’Art autumn/winter collection in 2013.’ They were supposed to be representing the rich strength and beauty of Texas, with Native American culture being such a huge part of Texan history. However, the design sparked outrage and they had to defend the use of their headdress as not being cultural appropriation.

Bethany Yellowtail drew inspiration from her culture with her set of designs ‘The Mighty Few’ which is named directly after her home town ‘Yellowtail’ which she grew up in. ‘The Mighty Few’ has brought classic designs like the ‘Tazbah Rose’ to life and Beth says that she wants people buying the clothes to ‘participate in a story and connect people to the clothes.’

Though some people take umbrage at the dilution of culture in fashion, many view it as a show of flattery and inspiration. Whether viewed in museums or as part of a modern piece, it is certainly fascinating to see Native designs. Using Native designs can be seen a derogatory or inspiring today but in my opinion if it leads to people discovering how some of the clothing was made and what it represented in the past and to this day like I have, then it can only be a positive thing.

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