I've written a little bit about patio dresses on the blog before, but I really dove into it (pulling up newspaper articles from 1955 and stuff) for my job's website last week. The vintage community is a large and diverse one, and I think we all kind of owe it to ourselves to know about the impact of the garments we're wearing, both then and now. Here's an abridged version below, about the amazing designer behind the original patio dress.
...When I first started seeing and reading about squaw dresses, I stopped short. By no means am I ignorant of our country's history of violence and displacement against Native Americans, but to see that disparity so glibly called upon to describe a dress was nasty. A squaw dress is a one or two-piece dress created in the early 1940s for vacationers to wear in the resort towns of the southwest. They're cotton with colorful borders, trim, and rickrack and don't need a lot of care. A lady vacationing in the desert doesn't want to fuss with changing outfits too much; she needs something she can wear to the market and still look nice enough to receive guests. That dress, based on the "broomstick" dresses worn by Navajo women, is perfect as she gets back to nature, but she doesn't go so native that she'll forget cocktail hour.
A cringe-worthy newsreel from the time explains:
I was ready and waiting to side-eye white designers for cherry-picking concepts from people of color for popular consumption. But I kept reading up on the style and discovered this dress was the creation of successful Cherokee designer Lloyd Kiva New was incredibly fascinating. Based in Scottsdale, New and the Native American artists he worked with expanded on rich Navajo, Cherokee, and Hopi traditions. He made space for craftsman to create and introduced their work to a broader audience both through his boutique and his Institute of American Indian Arts.
It wasn't long before New's dress left the resort towns. By the early 1950s, they became popular among women who would never set foot in the southwest. The dress even made it all the way to LIFE magazine in 1953. The short article reads,
Whatever the current silhouette elsewhere, women in the U.S. Southwest stick to skirts like those the Indians of the region wear. These were a national fad 10 years ago as "broomstick" skirts, costing as little as $1.98. Now vacationers returning from Arizona and New Mexico resorts are bringing them back in expensive, custom-made versions. Many are authentic copies of Apache or Navajo costumes, but others, like the cocktail dresses shown above, have strayed a long way off the reservation. The tribal touch appears in the print on the skirt borders and in the heavy jewelry, but the ruffled organdy petticoats are strictly from the city.New gets just a sentence in a caption on the second page of the two-page article; the garment shown is a decidedly mainstream sheath silhouette, albeit one printed with designs created by a man in his workshop.
He wasn't happy with (white) designers on the east coast taking his idea. "Out here, we know how to make them," he said in a 1955 interview with The Dispatch. "They are a modern expression of an ancient primitive art. Imitations always will look phony."
I have two of those "phonies" in my closet. The full-sweep skirts and metallic trim are romantic; they look incredible when I swing dance. But I've wondered if it's enough to know the inspiring history of the garment and its troubling representation. To be fair, vintage sellers and style bloggers are, for the most part, aware of how deeply offensive the term squaw dress is.
It saddens me that while New worked against antiquated, harmful images of uncivilized Natives, he was undercut by that term "squaw." But his success still stands. Dr. Jessica Metcalfe wrote at Beyond Buckskin: "The fact that his business was so successful during this important time - when the government was poised to begin their relocation and termination policies - is an indication of New's hard work, perseverance, talent, and ability to create work that celebrated Native cultures, yet also transcended the boundaries of Native American art."
But as I and tons of other girls duke it out in eBay auctions for one of these dresses--they really are amazing -- what are we actually collecting? Is my research enough? Am I actually not much better than the people running around music festivals in head dresses?