Modern Woodland Dress

The first completed project for my “2018 Travel Clothes” list was a dress for the 2018 Native American Literature Symposium. The conference was set for the Mystic Lake Casino in Minneapolis, MN.

I was on a panel full of strong Native women, all of us talking about family narratives, and all of us from communities of Great Lakes and Eastern Woodlands tribes. With that in mind, I wanted something that would be representative of our region and a sort of homage to my family.

I happened to find this awesome rayon print at Fabric Place Basement about a year and a half ago. I didn’t know what it would become…just that it was too perfect to pass up. The pattern was the closest I have ever come to finding a traditional Eastern Woodlands print in the regular store.

For comparison, I’ve included shots of two pairs of leggings that make up my traditional regalia.

The print reminded me of the mountain/hill motives that are common in Eastern Woodlands designs, as well as what I usually refer to as the “floral scrolls,” that resemble the curve of ferns and fines.

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I went with a Cashmerette pattern – a designer that has become my stand-by for something that will fit right out of the envelope. This time, I used the Upton dress pattern. I went with View A (a full skirt with box pleats at the raised waistline), as the pattern was rather busy and I wanted to minimize the chances of mismatched pattern lines.

In addition to making the construction a breeze, I think this version was also perfect for the pattern itself…if you notice, the “hill and starburst” pattern is preserved across all of the pleats. Even when the pattern repeats did not match up exactly, they were close enough, and occasionally allowed for some interesting shapes. For instance, this section on the back, which looks like a leaf.

I put more thought and intention into this outfit than pretty much everything else I wear on a daily basis. The jacket is a nod to  colonial and English military garb in the 1700s, and is typically more indicative of a tribe from the Eastern Woodlands than any other region — after all, we were having the most contact with folks from Europe at the time, and that is reflected in region-specific regalia trends.

I chose my brown leather wedges as a nod to the center-seam moccasins used by my people.

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For the jewelry:

  • I always wear a silver ring with turtle silhouettes on the band. My sister gave me the ring at the end of the day, following the very first powwow we held at GMU. The only times I have not worn it are the few occasions when I have temporarily lost it. My family is turtle clan, and I used to work with them in middle school.
  • The earrings are made of quahog shell (the purple and white beads that make up wampum belts are made from a very specific type of clam shell that is only found on the eastern shore of North and Central America). Not only do the turtles represent my family’s clan, they were a gift from my father a number of years ago — even before I had pierced ears. In fact, these earrings are the sole reason I pierced my ears in the first place.
  • The necklace is a new addition. I picked it up there in Minneapolis (because I forgot the piece I originally planned to wear). It’s silver, so it matches the other pieces. Like the jacket, it was a nod to the items of the military garb that were adopted into everyday wear for Eastern Woodlands tribes. It is meant to represent a military gorget.

Now that you’ve gotten the run-down of everything I wore (and why)…how did it all work out?

I loved it. I loved everything I wore that day. I don’t typically wear heels and, even when I do, I don’t wear them for very long. However, these shoes are among my most comfortable ones, and it wasn’t a pain wearing them for the whole day. The skirt of the dress is very lightweight (it’s a good thing I wasn’t outside in the wind, as it has a tendency to billow in stiff breezes), but it was perfect for being inside the casino where things can sometimes feel a little stuffy. The length was perfect, too — when I sat down to dinner, the skirt was long enough to cover more of my legs, which kept me warm in the cooler restaurant. I felt like I was representing my family with the whole outfit — which was my point, and which made sense, considering the topic of my paper.

The dress has entered regular rotation in my wardrobe. I’ve worn it for work meetings, and preaching, and for our first time seeing Cirque de Soleil, among other times. I have since added skirt weights – metal washers that I’ve crocheted around with embroidery floss and attached with little snaps, so they can be removed prior to washing.

A final side note: While constructing and wearing this dress was a conscious exercise in creating and presenting a modern-day version of traditional Eastern Woodlands dress, there was a more recent example of a not-so-noticeable return to these styles in my daily life. When I was in the midst of the most painful flair-up of my back problems, I found myself reaching, time and again, for the looser fitting me-made dresses that I could toss over my head, and a pair of black knit leggings that I could easily get in and out of (and that kept my legs protected from the harsh winter weather we were going through). About two weeks into this standard ensemble, I was shifting through the dresses in my closet and came to my regalia, hanging neatly on their respective hangers. That’s when it hit me.

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In the midst of my pain and fear, I was subconsciously reaching for the comforting forms of dress that reminded me of my family, my ancestors. I thought of my father, and the ways he met every setback in his life with determination and no small amount of humor. I thought of my aunts, my cousins, of generations of women who had dressed themselves in these styles. I reached for these outfits, and I clothed myself in history and culture and strength and resolve and generations of resilience in the face of pain and attempted erasure.

And I thought of my grandmother and one of her favorite sayings: “How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time, dear one. One step at a time.”

Interesting that I chose to embark on the first steps of that particular mountain clothed in cultural memory, without even realizing it.

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