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Seated at a loom or silhouetted by a panoramic Monument Valley landscape, our most enduring impressions of Navajo women are frozen in time on postcard nostalgia and in coffee table books. In this modernized representation of Navajo women-seen through the lens of Diné photographer LeRoy DeJolie-the resulting portraits reveal the evolution of traditional apparel that sings the stories of land, history and progress.
Whether covered head to toe in velvet, satin or cotton, the dress and manner of Navajo women expresses a modest, quiet dignity. "The Navajo style of dress is a classic design that has held its own over time," says Gallup-based designer Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger. A fashion staple equal to the classic "little black dress," the fluted broom skirt and velveteen blouse has transcended the kitsch of the '50s era "squaw dress" and the glamorized "Santa Fe Style" made popular in the '80s. No longer considered costumes, the Navajo skirt and blouse-worn with pumps, cowboy boots or moccasins-has come to epitomize the spirit of Western femininity.
However romanticized, the origins of this Western spirit can be attributed to adverse turns in Native American history. Throughout the Spanish conflicts and continuing until the late 19th century, Navajo dress consisted of the Pueblo-influenced biil. This two-paneled woven dress fastened at the shoulders, utilized slits for the arms and head and was cinched at the waist. The 1860s, fraught with Western expansion and subsequent Navajo resistance, delivered an assault on the Navajo way of life. A campaign to subdue the Navajo-which included the destruction of homes, crops and livestock-culminated in forcedcaptivity at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. During this four-year period of internment, it is reported that Navajo women who had been taken as servants were taught to sew by their mistresses.
Upon their release in 1868 and the establishment of the Navajo Reservation, the indomitable forces of industry and commerce forged the future of the Diné, via the trading post and railroad. By the 1880s, sewing machines, steel needles and colorful calicos, wools and velvets were more readily available and much sought after. Navajo women adopted the Victorian standard of dress-high collars, fitted sleeves, and full skirts-to suit their restored matriarchal role as caretaker, sheep-tender andandowner. Navajo women constructed tiered skirts from square fabric panels, crafted shirts with collars and mastered fancier tailoring known as "tucking." Later garment embellishments included adorning rows of silver buttons and coins.
More than a century later, this Navajo style has set a standard that has deviated very little, yet has been elevated to sophisticated levels that parallel the achievements of contemporary Native women. In the professional arena, Native women can claim powerful roles in the fields of medicine, law, business, education and politics, and still express their cultural identity and values through dress.
Contrasting the strict seasonal dictates of European fashion trends, Navajo style can be defined as fashion for all seasons. The Navajo garment industry has evolved from market stalls to clothing boutiques. Navajo women are now fashion designers in their own right. Margaret Wood, a doyenne of Native fashion and textiles for more than 20 years, successfully merges Native fashion and fine art through her works in wearable art and quilts. Renowned for her modern adaptations of traditional garments, a demand for her clothing designs led her to found her own company, Native American Fashions, Inc., and to publish Native American Fashion: Modern Adaptations of Traditional Designs (Van Nostrand), now in its second edition.