Project Runway’s "Squash Blossom" blouse

In fashion, Gretchen, Navajo, Project Runway, Squash Blossom, tribal fashion, Zuni by Adrienne K.10 Comments

I’ve been reading a few Project Runway recaps and watching some sporadic clips online (again with the no cable thing–you think I can get cable written off as a blogging expense?), and a couple of people sent me this image from last week’s episode.

From what I can gather, the contestants were asked to create a textile design, and then make an outfit centered around their creation. Gretchen chose the design above, which she called a “squash blossom” design, as a nod to her upbringing in the southwest.

So, it’s actually kinda pretty. I like it. But, it’s not a squash blossom design. This is a squash blossom design (or at least what I’ve always seen referred to as a Navajo squash blossom necklace):

(awesome picture, right? it’s from Life Mag’s archives, here)

Gretchen’s design is, to me anyway, a Zuni headdress/sunbonnet design:

I think this brings up a really interesting discussion. I think it is ok for designers to “draw inspiration” from Native cultures, but it can become very uncomfortable very quickly, and there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what could be considered otherizing, marginalizing, and cultural appropriation.

As it stands, Gretchen collapsed many distinct tribes throughout the southwest region into one “Southwest Native American Style”, and mis-characterized the design as a “squash blossom”. She didn’t attach an actual tribe to the design, which a quick google would have solved real quickly.

But also, like I said, I didn’t see the episode, so let me know if I’m giving her an unreasonably hard time.

So, if Gretchen had said “my design is a design taken from the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, it is a traditional headdress or sun bonnet design, and is often used on jewelry pieces by pueblo artisans…” or something of the sort, would it have been better? I’m not sure.

Where do we draw the line of inspiration and appropriation? Can “inspiration” be done in a way that is positive for the (almost always) marginalized communities that the designs or styles are taken from?

These are things I grapple with all the time as images come through my inbox…and I’m still not sure I have an easy answer.


UPDATE: apparently Gretchen DID call it a “sunbonnet” design, and the “squash blossom” came from the bloggers who apparently don’t pay attention to the actual episode they are recapping. From my friend A.:

“Although I don’t pretend to speak for the propriety of Gretchen’s use of the sun bonnet pattern, I watched the episode, and she did say she was inspired by her mom’s sun bonnet jewelry (not squash blossom), with multiple references to having grown up “in the southwest.” The whole episode is available for viewing on (it was an awesome episode, although not because of Gretchen).”

 So thanks for filling me in!

(Thanks Maria!)
  • I watched this show and Gretchen did call it a “sunbonnet design”. I don’t know where “squash blossom” came from. Of course, that doesn’t justify the appropriative aspects of lumping together all the native influences on Southwestern art.

  • Thanks for the update!

  • Thanks Sarah, I was adding an update as you commented–you know where I got “squash blossom”? From Jezebel. WHY do I even read that blog anymore?! They have consistently and repeatedly shown their ignorance on Native issues. ugh.

    here’s the post:

  • RMJ

    Great post, just one note – I am pretty sure that contestants are not allowed any access whatsoever to the Internet, so she couldn’t have Googled as you suggested.

  • The “squash blossom” comment DID come from Gretchen. She first referred to it as a squash blossom design, before later referring to it as a sun bonnet. I remember it quite distinctly, since the moment “squash blossom” came out of her mouth, I responded with a “WTF?”

    I also found her choice of “sun bonnet” a touch odd. It is sometimes call such, but the design is most commonly called a Zuni sunface.

    If anyone wants to see the episode, Lifetime does stream them on the show website starting Friday mornings after each episode is aired.

  • Picking up on RMJ: one of the (fun parts? contestant-torturing-devices?) rules on Project Runway, as far as I can tell, is that the contestants are basically completely cut off from the any part of the world that’s not given to them by the producers (this is why they get excited about field trips). For example, when they call home, they must do it on PR phones, so that the producers can tap the call. So I’m absolutely sure that Gretchen was making her designs, and deciding what to call them, from memory.

    Of course, accidental bad choices are still bad choices, but it’s something to keep in mind when deciding “how bad”.

  • Actually, she may have lifted the design from this. Not just by memory.

  • I respect your position as a native person but as a fashion designer, she can take her inspiration from anywhere she pleases, including your culture.

  • As a Zuni person, I was taken aback when i saw her design. Some people at home thought it was cool that she did it. Later after reflecting on it though, they were pissed. But that just goes to show the range of emotions evoked by instances such as this. not so clear cut all the time.

    True, as Metronomic stated, she can take her inspiration from where ever she wants. But I’m conflicted between feeling like people who take their inspiration–from any culture– either shouldn’t do it at all or if they do, they should do it right. Her design looked like a cheap imitation piece created in the Philippines (something our tribe has actively been working against). She took a perfectly beautiful design and 1. made it look like an obvious knock off and 2. made ugly clothes out of it. offensive on both fronts. but that’s just me.

    In both cases, people other then the originators of the designs/jewelry/iconography are making money off of these ‘inspired’ creations without giving anything back to the communities, not even proper recognition. that’s what really grinds my gears.

  • Ian

    Asreth: She very likely did use my necklace as inspiration as she had it for filming of Project Runway and wore it on screen on a different episode. Perhaps that is why ‘squash blossom’ was conflated with the sunface design in her interviews and that caused the confusion in this and other blogs (as the necklace is a sunface in the squash blossom style, a combo really). I’ve lent her a lot of jewelry from my family collection and she wears it with pride. Whether the design or description were from memory or not really doesn’t come into play, but if you all remember, the judges liked her textile and the clothes she made, whether you did or not. The Southwest is chic right now, and I for one am not complaining.

    Should we really fault her for wearing and being inspired by the unrivaled quality and beauty of handmade jewelry from the southwest? As we all know, there are a lot of voices in that realm and even people educated in them all would be hard pressed to represent them all separately in the way that is being suggested here on a reality contest show. Also remember, although she won the whole show, it wasn’t just her platform (there are many other designers on the show) and any “good/thorough representation” she could have done might be on the editing room floor, we just don’t know. I have been friends with Gretchen for a decade so I know her heart and it is hard to see people project negative feelings towards her so often when she is just trying to do her best and is truly a good person, who can make mistakes like any of us.

    Let me tell you all something else, Gretchen very much wants to give back to the communities she has references and is working very hard in her business plans to do just that. I can’t give the details, but she is going to, trust me. Then you all can judge her or maybe instead you would want to guide her. We need to give her and others that actually appreciate native peoples more slack in critique and maybe instead help her/us with education and context so that we can all live more respectful lives.

    If any of you have suggestions for me on how to best represent the peoples who jewelry and art I sell, I would welcome it. I’ll start with committing to following this blog. My family has been trading in this business since the 1950’s and I would like to carry on the tradition in a respectful manner that gives proper recognition to the creators of all this beauty and wisdom. Please take a look at my shop if you are interested in helping and send me an Etsy convo or email. I would welcome the dialogue and have a lot to learn myself.