An uneasy exchange between fashion and culture
GOTH chic, rocker chic, Masai chic, androgynous chic, biker chic, punk chic, minimalist chic. Fashion is culture’s Godzilla, devouring everything in its path. Half the time, the monster doesn’t know what it ate.
Most recently it gobbled up the complex Navajo tribal culture, which then, semidigested, turned up on runways, in stores, online and finally in the news, as last week the people who unwittingly provided inspiration for Navajo chic took legal issue with a process of cultural appropriation that American Indians know perhaps too well.
“We are very proud of our name, Navajo,” said Ben Shelly, Navajo Nation president, referring to a civil legal action begun in late February by the country’s largest Indian tribe to stop Urban Outfitters and its subsidiaries from misappropriating the Navajo trademark and name.
“To be used in this kind of fashion, I’m very unhappy with it,” Shelly said in a public statement, referring to 20 or so items – some by now renamed or removed from circulation by the mass market retailer – apparently inspired by one of the more unpredictable fashion trends of recent years.
It started, by all accounts, with Proenza Schouler’s spring 2012 ready-to-wear collection shown last fall, which shrewdly reworked as stylish and urban the muted earth colours and stylised geometries characteristic of much Southwestern design.
Apparently triggered by a vacation trip the designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez made to Santa Fe, New Mexico, land of the broomstick skirt, the jackalope and the howling blue coyote, the collection either inspired a raft of imitators or blundered into a stealth trend.
Anna Sui got on board, and so did Mathew Williamson, Etro and Levi’s Workwear. Nike introduced some anomalous sneaker-style moccasins.
The French designer Isabel Marant produced a spring collection that draws on the stylised motifs of Navajo sand paintings and the arts of the Southwestern Pueblo tribes. In cities like Los Angeles, Marant’s skinny jeans ornamented with Navajo-style patterns quickly went celebrity-viral, if that term can be used for material goods. To judge from the catalogues of high-end retailers like Bergdorf Goodman, New York is due for an Indian spring.
On either coast, the cliche references have been dusted off: squash blossom necklaces, beadwork, feathers, turquoise jewellry, Minnetonka moccasins, Pendletonblanket jackets, clunky silver, fringed anything. Trend-establishing shops like Rene Holguin’s RTH on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, California, have lately begun looking like satellites of some Wild West trading post.
It was probably inevitable that mass merchandisers would seize on a trend that requires little beyond bowdlerised graphics and ornamental doodads to telegraph cultural reference, and just as likely that items like Urban Outfitter’s Navajo Printed Hipster Panty would also turn up soon enough to inflame Native American sensibilities.
In its complaint last October, the Navajo Nation singled out the panties as “derogatory and scandalous,” along with a Navajo Print Wrapped Fabric Flask, an association the group considered particularly objectionable, given that the sale and consumption of alcohol is banned on the 25,000-square-mile reservation.
Though the company eventually withdrew certain Navajo inspired products from its website, others continued to appear in catalogues and websites for brands like Free People, which Urban Outfitters controls. The lawsuit, filed in February in US District Court in New Mexico, alleged violations of trademark law and the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it illegal to suggest that goods are of authentic Indian manufacture when they are not.
“The fame or reputation of the Navajo name and marks is such that, when defendant uses the ‘Navajo’ and ‘Navaho’ marks with its goods and services, a connection with the Navajo Nation is falsely presumed,” the suit alleged. The Navajo Nation holds 10 registered trademarks covering a variety of household and apparel goods bearing the Navajo name. (Urban Outfitters did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) Of course, what was partly lost in all this is that the Navajo Nation is hardly walled off from American pop culture. At the sartorial and possibly other levels, as well, the Navajos evoked by Navajo chic may be a dwindling few. While the traditional folkways of the country’s most populous tribe remain vital to an aging population, you won’t find many young Navajos in the trappings of Navajo chic.
Bashas’ s u p e r - market in the Tseyi’ Shopping Centre serves the town of Chinle, just outside the sacred Navajo site and national monument at Canyon de Chelly. As the only major supermarket for miles around, Bashas’ offers a fairly representative cross section of the population on the reservation.
And, whether there or at the nearby Pic-n-Run or the local franchise of Church’s Chicken or at Wildcats games at Chinle High School, the majority of those not old enough for Social Security appear to favour the uniform most other Americans do: hoodies, T-shirts and baggy jeans.
Elderly couples can still be seen at Bashas’, having driven long distances from farmsteads dotted throughout the vast reservation. Their pickups are often piled high with cordwood or potable water. Women wear long flounced skirts, velveteen blouses, Pendleton jackets and the weighty turquoise jewellry that represents portable wealth in a culture with historically limited access to banks.
Like most of the old, they favour sensible shoes over flimsy moccasins.
The men, with their typical barrel chests encased in Carhartt jackets, narrow hips snug in Wranglers and black felt Stetsons with upturned brims, epitomise an equally endangered form of classic cowboy style.
“Nowadays we don’t wear it anymore,” said Alex Mitchell, an associate at the museum of Dine College, a two-year tribal college in Tsaile, Arizona, referring to traditional Navajo clothing. “In their 20s and 30s, everyone wears jeans and maybe miniskirts and so on.” Teenagers in Navajo country dress as teenagers do everywhere: the same lip rings, A&F logos and Crazy Colour streaks. “That Navajo style, it’s probably the last generation that will do it,” Mitchell said, noting with a hint of optimism that graduation season is coming.
Ceremonial occasions are a remaining stronghold of Navajo style in Navajo land. Whether for tribal gatherings, powwows or any event involving a diploma, even the young still make their way to cities like Gallup, New Mexico, to buy traditional moccasins, cowboy shirts with pearly snap buttons, blanket dresses and the hunks of silver and turquoise that are a Navajo version of a graduation-day watch.