In line with the sartorial theme, the companion exhibit of the Metroplitan Museum of Art’s Gala likened the United States to a patchwork quilt through Jesse Jackson’s famous words at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
The exhibition (and this year’s much-debated red carpet theme) called In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, opened with Jackson’s quote:
“America is not like a blanket—one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size,” it reads. “America is more like a quilt—many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.”
While the rainbow patchwork is an indisputable part of the American framework, it is then also a fact that the base fabric – the very land itself – is Indigenous. With Jackson’s analogy, 2021’s Met Gala attempted to be a mirror of this quilt. What did the reflection look like? An incoherent mix of patterns that left onlookers confused. Indigenous representation for that matter resembled a single swatch, let alone taking up the space of a foundational fabric.
The Met Gala is elite because it’s invite-only: no matter how high-profile, celebrities can only attend if they’re on Anna Wintour’s (Artistic Director of Condé Nast and the Global Editorial Director of Vogue) list. It’s organized to raise money for the Costume Institute, a New York mainstay. The Met Gala is seen as “fashion’s biggest night” and Wintour is estimated to have raised a total of $200 million for it ever since she took over its reigns in 1995.
Though it’s the red carpet ceremony that draws the most eyeballs, the gala also comes with a fashion exhibition at the museum. The exhibition was a curated gallery of ensembles from fashion heavy-weights like Ralph Lauren, Bode, and Stan to Gabriela Hearst, Isaac Mizrahi, and Calvin Klein. Among their cubicles, a comparitively lesser-known fashion designer’s work took up as much space. This was the creation of Indigenous designer Korina Emmerich, belonging to the Puyallup tribe from Coast Salish territory.
Emmerich’s ‘Cascade Ensemble’ was the only exhibit showing Indigenous fashion design. She’s no stranger to high-profile honors either. Emmerich, who founded the fashion house EMME Studio, had her dress worn by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on the August cover of InStyle magazine.
Each exhibit was given a name that was in line with American values and character. Emmerich’s piece was matching with the label of ‘Sustentation’, which means the maintenance of an entity usually through the provision of money. When an Instagram follower asked why none of her designs were worn by celebrities at the Met Gala, Emmerich informed them that she wasn’t invited.
“While a HUGE honor there is a lot of space left for discussion. And the dialogue we create around these moments is so much more important than the fleeting joy we feel about finally seeing a contemporary Indigenous designer at the Met,” Emmerich said on her Instagram post. “Because out of 100 looks we still only make up 1% of the show. Because the look chosen is my exploration of a violent colonial legacy and my 4x great grandfather who worked as a canoe middleman with HBC until retiring in Cowlitz WA – an area where my family has remained for generations.”
Historically, the mainstream viewpoint in American culture had often appropriated the Native American garb for aesthetic purposes. While music festivals like Coachella saw a rise of people using items like the traditional headdress, the headband and dream catchers (to name a few) as costumes, the “culture vulture” aspect of Indigenous clothing was present in white American culture since the early 20th century, if not earlier.
In his TikTok video, Indigenous fashion designer Geronimo Louie gave the example of the eventual appropriation of the buckskin jacket, which the fashion industry and consumers in general incorrectly refer to as the “cowboy fringe”.
“This salient technique itself dates back further than that within Indigenous tribes all across America who used the same styling technique within their traditional clothes. But it didn’t become popular in America until the practice of trading with other tribes as well as foreigners, hence the name ‘cowboy fringe’,” he said. “Over the years, Indigenous people would have more influential stance on the fashion industry, highlighting into the late 60s and early 70s, with of course, the popularity of hippies and rock n’ roll.”
With social justice causes proving that politics doesn’t exist in vaccum but rather permeates almost every element of daily life, most people are thinking twice when it comes to their fashion choices. Indian Country Today even reported that the Met theme of putting American fashion on a pedestal made a few hope that no celebrity would turn up as a caricature of Native Americans.
“Of course, with all influential ideas coming from Indigenous peoples or BIPOC people, most of the fashion industry would not take these influential ideas into…consideration or acknowledgment. In fact, it created into bigger problems of cultural appropriation, misrepresentation, and over-sexualization of Indigenous women,” Louie informed in his video.
Indigenous representation received loud recognition only once too on the Met’s red carpet. Indigenous model and activist Quannah Chasinghorse made her debut and went viral when she appeared in a gold lamé dress paired with layered pieces of turquoise jewelry that came from Jocelyn Billy-Upshaw’s personal collection and featured Navajo artists from across the Southwest. She also wore hand-poked facial tattoos called Yidįįłtoo, which were done by her mother. Chasinghorse is of Hän Gwich’in (from Alaska and Canada) and Oglala Lakota (from South Dakota) ancestry.
“I’m constantly breaking those barriers and stereotypes that are meant to harm my people and make us feel less than human. It was refreshing to feel empowered in a space where I wouldn’t have been welcomed if it was a decade ago,” Chasinghorse told Vogue. “I really wanted to be able to get some visibility and show the world that we are still here.”
While featuring Chasinghorse and Emmerich were steps in the right direction, the move was long due and the Met, which is already being criticized for showcasing a low number of Black designers, could have paid homage on a greater scale.
“I was LITERALLY thinking today- when is the Met Gala going to have a wholly Indigenous theme?! If it was done right it has the potential to be everythingggg. There is such richness here. And all the cultural dreams spun by these Indigenous creators is just scratching the surface of what’s possible if our peoples had ample resources and platforms,” commented Indigenous and transgender activist Sherenté Mishitashin Harris on Louie’s video.
Louie’s video served as an educational resource for onlookers who were fashion-savvy or otherwise. He highlighted other Indigenous fashion creators whose works deserve to be noticed. The Met Gala
“In all honesty, we have a lot to offer to the fashion industry even to this day. So, I expect to see more than just one exhibit showing Indigenous fashion design,” he said in it.
Watch Geronimo Louie’s video and check out his recommendations below.