"Navajo" Fashion Spread in Seventeen

In "tribal", Navajo, seventeen, tribal fashion by Adrienne K.12 Comments

(via my culture is not a trend, click for bigger version)

Cultural appropriation in fashion has now gone seriously mainstream. The favorite read of tweens and teens everywhere, Seventeen Magazine, featured this “Navajo” fall fashion spread in their August issue. On many levels, I find this even more offensive than having a generic “tribal fashion” spread. I know I always point out that those spreads lump a million different Native tribes, images, and traditions into one catch-all, otherizing, “tribal” idea–and at least this one listed a tribe, right? Yeah, not so much. 

They still rely on generalized Native stereotypes, but this time are referring to a specific culture. This points to the fact that in the collective American consciousness, all tribes are interchangeable. Navajo, Ojibwe, Kootenai, take your pick. They’re all the same! For instance, dream catchers: definitely not Navajo. Would I still be upset if they had paid attention and made taken inspiration from actual Navajo culture? Like if they had a white model dressed up in a rug dress? Of course. But hopefully you see my point.

My friend Marlon did a little research, and found out that in January 1973 Seventeen actually did a cover story entitled: “Special Report: Today’s Young Navajos”. I love the cover image (below) for many reasons, but mainly because they didn’t have her pose in traditional clothes or try and have her conform to a more stereotypical image. She looks like she’s about to laugh, just hanging out with her friends. Well done. I can’t find the article, so I have no idea if the accompanying story was a shining example or a cringe-inducing piece, but it’s still pretty interesting to examine the cover alone: 

As I was pulling together this post, I wanted a shocking, over-the-top example to illustrate how these fashion spreads make me feel every time I encounter them in magazines or on other fashion blogs…so I turned to polyvore and MS Paint, and made this:

UPDATE 8/28: After sleeping on it, I took it down. What was here was a “fashion” spread made up of various Africa/Urban/other Black stereotype “inspirations”. It didn’t illustrate my point, and any point it did make was at the expense of another marginalized group with not nearly enough context or description given. I was going for a visceral reaction, but in a blogging world where most page views are a matter of seconds, it’s definitely not enough to throw that up there alone. I also want you to focus on the juxtaposition of the two Seventeen images rather than my misguided attempts at making a point. Apologies for my initial transgressions, and in the words of Kanye West’s prolific Twitter: IT’S A PROCESS.  Thanks for bearing with me.  
I bet every fashion blogger making an Native-inspired version relies on the same tatic–pulling together complete stereotypes of what they think of when they hear “Native American”. We are so much more than that–but to the readers of the August issue of Seventeen and the fashion blogosphere, we are simply feathers, dream catchers, headdresses, warpaint, moccasins, and beads. Nothing more. 

(Thanks Lauren and Marlon!)
  • Americans just need to stop culture surfing.

  • I generally really love the points you make on this blog, but when you start getting into “they wouldn’t do this to Black folks” territory I feel like you may have lost your footing. There are fairly constant calls from black bloggers about the racism in the fashion industry that targets “Africa” (as if it were a monolithic country instead of a continent with numerous countries and hundreds of languages spoken), where grass skirts and leopard spot skins become the new “in” look for the season. I guess I just feel like a better example would be white culture, which really does have a societally exalted status in the US, other than picking on (perceived or real) discrepancies between how depictions of Native/First Nations/Indigenuous are racist with how depictions of Black (or Asian, there’s another giant catch-all, or Latin@) folks. Which is to say that one often doesn’t notice how things are racist/problematic if it doesn’t affect oneself (I remember this happening with kefiyah’s on this blog?).

    We’re swimming in a racist stew which privileges whiteness, and I feel that the ways that different ethnic/racial groups are targeted are used to fragment those who are trying to oppose the racism and idealization of white supremacy.

    I’m honestly not trying to shame you, but it makes me uncomfortable to have you put up a montage of “blackness” that isn’t really analogous. As I said, there are spreads of “Africa” themed things, which do in fact directly map onto the experience of having a “Navajo” page. Additionally, though the Seventeen page was offensive it was purely about appropration. Using a sambo doll in your montage steps firmly out of “appropriaton” into racist items that were always intended to demean and belittle Black folks.

  • I think I agree with the commenter above.

  • @ DeviantE, Thanks so much for your comment–and you can look back at the post and see I actually edited and took down my version of the fashion spread.

    What I had in my head and where I was going did not translate well, and it took away from the power of looking at the two Seventeen covers side by side. I wasn’t trying to say that this doesn’t happen to any other group (though that is exactly what I said, in hindsight), I definitely agree with you that the problem with these fashion spreads-making everyone out to be the same, mixing up distinct cultures, drawing on stereotypes are a huge issue for other communities as well.

    My issue was with the labeling. It’s easy for editors to deny cultural appropriation or any ill intent when the magazines label the inspirations as extremely generic terms like “tribal” or “Indian Summer” or “Urban Warrior” or something…but you would never see a spread simply labeled as “Black”, or “Latina”, or “Asian”, but that is essentially what they did here. But I didn’t make that clear in the post. I was also expanding beyond just the Seventeen spread, which actually wasn’t that bad in the grand scheme of appropriations and thinking more about the images that circulate on some of the fashion blogs.

    And as far as the references to blackface, I’ve actually had a post in the works for awhile discussing how I feel headdresses are extremely analogous to the practice, I’ll try and get it up soon.

    So thank you again, and I hope I’ve made my thinking a bit clearer, at least, so you can see what I was attempting to do (but clearly failed).



  • Adrienne, thanks so much for the clarification (and for taking down the spread). Another commenter emailed me asking for examples of what I was talking about in terms of “Africa” themed stuff, and I figured that if I’d been less tired when I wrote the original comment I would have included the research to back up my points, and that potentially other people might be interested in it as well, so if it’s ok I’m going to elaborate (acknowledging that you no longer include in the post a comparison of the fashion industry’s appropriation of Black and Native cultures).
    While I did not have the links saved, an internet search landed me Zebras, “Tribal” Prints: It’s Afrika! (which I’m sure was one of those that I was remembering… frustratingly, they neglect to mention Native Cultures of North America as another fashionized/fetishized “group,” but one thing I do appreciate about their article is that they use whiteness/white culture as the foil, since I think it’s probably the only valid foil out there… we really *wouldn’t* have a “europe” inspired fashion spread that combined Spanish and the UK culture/fashion as if they were the same).
    This is another of the articles I was remember and talks about not just American Apparel’s racist lumping of “Afrika” but a whole fashion week where apparently the designers decided to use “Africa” as their “drumbeat”: What Is African Fashion.
    Sadly I didn’t find any others of those from my memory, but here’s some more from searching:
    a guest post at Sociological Images (which shows *actual* South African street fashion, the better with which to appreciate the racism inherent in “Afrika/African” themed clothes, and which includes a link to even more fashion from South Africa, and other countries including Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria) (really awesome stuff!).
    Sociological Images seems to be on a roll because in addition to a post with actual fashion from South Africa they had one: Representing Africa which is about using 2 tribes from East Africa to talk about “African fashion,” and the choice to only fashion from tribal people (as opposed to those examples of South African fashion).

  • …and I just re-read my comment (it was pre-coffee). I’m usually much more coherent, swear. :)

  • Thanks Adrienne, I appreciate your thoughtful response. I honestly didnt feel that you absolutely had to take the pic down but I felt that it wasnt the best illustration of your point.

    As far as hot messes in fashion, here are a couple of my unfavorites: http://www.racialicious.com/2008/09/12/zebras-tribal-prints-its-afrika/, http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2008/07/04/african-people-as-props-for-white-femininity/. Contrast with what africans are actually doing w/ fashion, http://community.livejournal.com/blackcigarette/1062950.html.

  • Thanks for sending those over! Threadbared http://iheartthreadbared.wordpress.com/ is another great site for issues of representation in fashion too. They had some interesting posts about the use of asian women as backdrops for fashion spreads…sociological images has a series about that phenomenon as well. (Don’t you just love SocImages?)

    Thanks again for your comments and letting me clarify my thoughts!

  • I usually just think it, but the above conversation in the comments is one of the reasons I love this blog. Thoughtful discussions on appropriation and race are hard to come by and I think this blog and the commenters do a fantastic job.

  • @Salvador
    Isn’t America supposed to be a collection of cultures? If so, it wouldn’t be “culture surfing”, but “culture collecting”.

    Let’s be real here, they certainly didn’t do this in the most politically correct way… but that stuff is PRETTY. I like the colors, the textures, and the overall style of most of the items.

  • kisskiss_coop

    Totally agree with this!!! I am NAVAJO I am not a TREND. I don’t dress in feathers, headdresses or even wear warpaint.Also I DON’T live in a tipi, I dress in jeans, I live in a house, I wear lipgloss, curl my hair and If you want to dress like a Navajo or buy anything remotely close to NAVAJO go to an Indian Market!!!!

  • kisskiss_coop

    Totally agree with this!!! I am NAVAJO I am not a TREND. I don’t dress in feathers, headdresses or even wear warpaint.Also I DON’T live in a tipi, I dress in jeans, I live in a house, I wear lipgloss, curl my hair and If you want to dress like a Navajo or buy anything remotely close to NAVAJO go to an Indian Market!!!!