Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Does This Dress Make Me Look Insensitive?

I'm a great big nerd, and being interested in vintage clothing means spending time doing something I love--research. And I felt there was plenty of research to be done when, early in my time as a vintage collector, I was reading about something called a "squaw dress". I clutched my pearls at the name because in today's world that's deeply offensive. Perfectly fine for yesteryear, but not OK today.

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.

The author in one of her patio dresses 

...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."

life magazine squaw dress

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?


  1. This is fascinating!! How wonderful to learn more about the history of this kind of dress, especially that it did have its roots in authentic Native American design. This is really awesome. I'm going to go tweet about it.

  2. Oh also, I think it would be okay to wear a New dress, and I think copycat dresses are okay, too. Most people no longer think of them as being authentic Native American looks like they may have been mistaken as in the 50s. Personally, as someone who is not in touch with her Native American heritage at all and is working with the perspective I've got... I'd say it's okay to wear these. Just my thought.

  3. I didn't learn about these dressed until I read about them on vintage blogs. Part of the reason was because I just didn't like them. I turned my nose at them when browsing online, so when I started to read that they were culturally insensitive, I was gave a big "WHAAAA?!?!" I would never of made the association that they were mimicking Native American fashion, since they look so different. I do this all the time, like with Tiki (it took me awhile that it was mimicking Polynesian culture, I mean come on guys) or western copies of blue and white chinese porcelain (they are so far from the originals and can be sooo ugly)

    "They are a modern expression of an ancient primitive art. Imitations always will look phony."
    I definitely love this quote because I think it rings true for anything cultural adoption of an art form. You can tell when it isn't authentic, and that can be bad, and it can be good.

  4. Really fascinating read! Great article. I have always loved the look of these patio sets and dresses as much as I love (and collect) southwestern jewelry. I only own one patio set though.
    I think you'd only lose your soul though if you made it into a mini and wore it with a flower crown! ;)


Thanks so much for your comments!