Take a look at what you're wearing right now. Chances are it's not gonna give many clues to your personal history; for my part, Levis, American Apparel tee and a thrift store cardigan mark me as anyone working from home on a Wednesday. In this era of fast fashion, whose sartorial history doesn't go much beyond last week's ripoff of last month's runway trend, made somewhere across the world under circumstances we'd rather not consider from animals we don't want to think about, we have little connection to what we wear.This contrast is really stark when you consider the 50 or so 19th-century Native American garments currently on display in at New York's National Museum of the American Indian. The woman who wore these, as the NY Times puts it, "could tell you exactly who had hunted the animals from which her dress was taken. She would know who had tanned the hides, stitched them together and sewed hundreds of beads onto them, and what the pattern of those beads signified." And they could tell us a lot about how to handle a recession. The wealth of history and biography woven into each of these dresses is amazing: the implicit trajectories of colonization and changed hunting patterns, the changes in materials, inclusion of new ones and ingenious substitutes for once-plentiful decorations. The eyeteeth of an elk were "a way for women to show off the hunting skills of male family members. New brides often wore dresses made by their mothers-in-law and adorned with elk teeth collected by their husbands over many years." Italian glass beads or woolen fabrics showed the influence of European traders. Perhaps most fascinating are the tangible and valiant attempts to keep culture alive under the threat of extinction, as in the prevalent use of American flag imagery in many of the Sioux dresses. "On the reservation, Indian ceremonies (banned by the government) were replaced by Fourth of July festivities and other patriotic celebrations," but using these motifs on traditional garments was a subversive means of bridging the gap. The use of traditional motifs in clothing was also a means of silently evoking the "ghost dances," which were banned because the government felt they evoked massacres like Wounded Knee. In sum, writer Karen Rosenberg concludes that "it’s hard to find a better example of art, labor, storytelling and female bonding" than this exhibition. I'd add that it would be hard to find anything more relevant to current discussions of the cultural ravages of fast fashion and, even more aptly, the nascent "slow fashion" movement. We've talked a blue streak about the human and environmental costs of fast fashion juggernauts like Forever21, as well as the cultural erosion it's helped precipitate - never have we valued things or quality so little, while paradoxically been so steeped in unwholesome materialism. In this sense, the current economic challenges could hopefully provide, if not a silver lining, at least the necessity of reevaluating our priorities. So far, slow fashion is a tiny movement — far from the natural, traditional evolution of the garments featured in Inwood, the attempt to create small-batch cottage industries from fair trade materials can feel forced and somewhat twee. Much as local and organic eating is only beginning to shake off the stigma of yuppie luxury and become a slowly-growing cultural norm, so too must clothing with a provenance. However, the movement can also be a boon for small, old-fashioned industries — the Guardian mentions a new interest in traditional, hand-woven Scottish tartans and hand-made shoes - especially since the quality of such things usually qualifies them as those hot-button recession justifications, "investments." Anyone who has ever worn something homemade, however crummy-looking, knows how much more valuable it feels than something bought for $12 on a lunch break. Even a particularly exciting thrift-store find feels more special for the work invested. Slow fashion is obviously a virtuous enterprise, but the slight taint of self-righteousness it carries is worth it; like eating a really good heirloom tomato. We are not conditioned to save and invest and buy investment pieces — we are too conditioned for easy gratification, me and my eBay habit probably as much as anyone — which is why something like this exhibit is such an excellent shot in the anonymously-clothed arm. In Tribal Dresses, Life Stories, Intricate Labor and Female Bonding[New York Times]
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I hope I can bring my mom to this when she visits this weekend. My happiest childhood memories are going to powwows near the Everglades with my grandparents.