Indigenous Style


Our ancestors knew what they were doing, particularly when it came to fashion!


One of the key tenets of capitalism is the infinite growth paradigm. Under this paradigm, companies must always increase their profits. Stagnation and decline are treated as intolerable ailments that must be swiftly corrected, but you can’t achieve growth without increasing consumption. This is inherently problematic.

- J.B. Mac Kinnon

When will fashion successfully embrace environmental and cultural ethics on a global level? For far too long, big name brands have repeatedly appropriated Indigenous patterns and imagery without shame. And they aren't especially creative with what they steal. Thus far, they seem to only be interested in headdresses and Navajo/floral patterns.

Just... No.

At the same time, capitalism’s environmental impacts are something we’ve become all too familiar with in the news.  The largest impact of pollution comes from big oil, but a close second is the fast fashion industry.  Be it through the chemical waste of unnatural textile and dye production, or factory waste and emissions in general.  Not to mention the unethical use of slave labour and poor working conditions.  All of this destruction simply to make an item of clothing that won’t withstand a couple of months of use.

How did we come to this point? Let's go back a few steps...

Edwardian female fashion

When we look at the history of fashion, clothing made pre-industrialization was often commissioned and made for the wearer personally.  A great deal of importance was placed on the quality of the garment, and depending on your class either you would commission something of the fashions (which did not change very quickly as they do today) or perhaps you would commission something classic that would have the ability to be re-worn.

Industrialization marks the beginning of clothing made for the masses with no specific person in mind.  Companies used measurements taken from the poorer working class people, as they were the persons intended to buy these products. Generally, these people were malnourished and emaciated (these “standard” sizes and measurements for garments have not changed much since then, but that’s a whole other outrage).

The beginning of factories led to greater quantities of products and lower prices due to the high volume of product output.  Despite inflation and the change of prices in other market items, clothing prices have varied very little since the introduction of factory production.  Fashion as an industry has lost a core of ethics and values over the past 100 years, and we as consumers aren’t exactly helping. What will it take to bring us back to a place where quality trumps quantity?

Two hide Plains dress

Currently it seems damn near impossible to buy sustainable pieces unless you know where to seek them out and can afford them.  How can Indigenous clothing production have an impact on this conundrum, and how can integrating it in global fashion benefit the Indigenous people contributing?

This gal's keeping warm in her sealskin.

Let's start with sustainability.  A priority should be placed on the use of materials we have access to, rather than producing factory plastic fabrics. In our obsession with factory fabrics, we have forgotten or ignored the benefits of natural fibers. Sealskin, for example, is inherently waterproof – for thousands of years, the Inuit have used it to keep them dry in wet, icy conditions. And of course, seals aren't only good for their skin. The Inuit have always used every part of the animal, including the meat for food and the blubber for insulation. One animal with a list of different benefits? What a novel idea! When we consider this – it seems an absolute waste to source materials for one single purpose. This applies to the fashion industry and beyond.

Skohlpa (dusty dress)

Next let's talk about the beauty of pieces being made to last. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Our greed-fueled economy has made it so that fast fashion is the rule of law. The materials used today are often quite cheap and undesirable on their own; they've simply been assembled in a way that’s trendy and easy to sell for that reason. Things break apart, but not in a way that's biodegradable or perhaps even worth mending.  When we look at hides, or other naturally acquired materials, there is an inherent importance - a respect - placed on the material.  We have to use everything of which we collect, and we give thanks for that which gave its life so that we could be warm and protected from the elements.

This spiritual importance and thanks gives life to the materials that we don’t see at all in today's fast fashion.  The importance of the material doesn’t go further than aesthetic quality, and even then, design choices are still questionable.  When we consider a company like Patagonia, who have made it there mission to be a sustainable company, they take into consideration the life of their products.  How long will it last?  Is it useful?  Can it be mended?  Given this mission statement, their popularity and numbers have only been increasing.  This is because there are people who want to put their dollar into products that will last, and into a company that is transparent about their carbon footprint, and who is willing to stand apart from the infinite growth model: a company which is ideally constantly growing in size, production, consumption, but most importantly, profits.

Handmade piece by First Nations designer Brenda Lee Asp

Another point of interest is supply chain.  Most fashion outlets source their materials from factories etc. meanwhile it’s become more customary for luxury brands to own and monitor production from start to finish: meaning they are in charge of collecting and making their materials from scratch.  This model is not far off from Indigenous means of production.  To have ownership over one's materials, and to have accountability over the means used to make them leaves more room for thoughtful ethics in production.  It is also a means of ensuring quality of the material.  It bears repeating that being in command of one's materials from start to finish builds ownership and respect toward the final product.  If a standard of sustainability is placed upon producers, then the inherent nature of the product improves.  It becomes something far more special and purposeful.

It's in our human DNA to be attached to our possessions. Our obsession and attachment can be something that propels a meaningful use and consumption of clothing, but first we must see change in the actual producers of that clothing. The best way we can influence the manufacturers and distributors is with our dollar. It has become our most powerful asset, and we need to use it responsibly.

Banner image: Beadwork by Kaylyn Baker


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