The clothing company Ralph Lauren released an online advertisement for its RRL line last month that drew scathing criticism from Native Americans. The ad's imagery harked back to the Old West, with henley jerseys and rustic jeans displayed in faded sepia tones.
Another page depicted a stoic Native American man with dark skin, braided hair and a Western shirt-and-vest combo. Critics charged that the ads reduced people, and indeed entire cultures, to mere marketing props. The episode neatly summed up an issue in fashion and pop culture that has drawn heated debate in recent years. The “cowboys and Indians” movies of the 1950s did much to solidify these tropes in modern American culture, building on centuries of stereotypes. Model Karlie Kloss wearing a Native American headdress during the taping of the 2012 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in New York. Take the war bonnet, a feathered headdress worn by the warriors or leaders of many Native American tribes.
Such cliched images are what many Native Americans in the fashion industry want to transcend.
Raised in Montana on the Crow Indian Reservation, Yellowtail wants to bring authenticity to indigenous fashion with her line B.Yellowtail, which will be released in spring. Bethany Yellowtail's "Old style floral elk tooth dress" on the runway at the Santa Fe Indian art market.


Patricia Michaels, a 48-year-old Native American fashion designer who appeared on Bravo’s "Project Runway" in 2013, told HuffPost that she doesn't consider it her place to police what people can or can't use in their designs. The famed designer behind his eponymous brand built his fashion empire on images of classic Americana, clothes that evoke the idyllic American dream. There's a pervasive idea that Native Americans are a thing of the past, said Kim TallBear, a professor of anthropology and Native American and indigenous studies at the University of Texas at Austin. And while one page touted bandanas and “Western-style” shirts, the opposite page showed a Native American sporting a feathered headdress, holding a rifle across his lap. Many people seemingly remain tethered to the idea of a romanticized Old West -- a time of death and carnage for America’s indigenous population.
These films mashed up the traditions of countless tribes indiscriminately, often depicting Native Americans as primitive, even bloodthirsty brutes. Each feather was earned through a sacrifice or an act of valor, making the bonnet a mark of great respect.
Her clothes are modern takes on the classic designs of her culture, adapting the work of her ancestors to the 21st century -- for example, designs based on the beadwork of her great-grandmother, who lived in the 19th century. It should come down to thoughtfulness and taste, she said, adding that if the non-Native American designers who have gotten in trouble in the past had simply collaborated with Native American designers who know the culture, everyone would have benefited. Her “Elk Antler Cape” strives to portray the beauty and grace of indigenous hunters and the animals that give their lives. Many of his brand’s designs succeed in that -- from preppy polos to denim workwear -- and his Navajo prints of the 1980s popularized many indigenous patterns.


Lauren himself, though, addressed his love for Native American aesthetics in an interview with the Associated Press last June.
His Double RL Ranch in Colorado is chock-full of tents and artifacts, and there's even a decorative vintage photo of a nameless Native American child. The idea that Native Americans no longer exist makes it easier for society to ignore their voices. At best, indigenous people were depicted as noble savages, piteous characters not yet corrupted by the "civilized" world.
But at the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, supermodel Karlie Kloss strode down the catwalk in panties, a skimpy bra and a massive war bonnet-like headdress.
Cultural representations of Native Americans are always focused on the past, she said, as seen in sports franchises like the Cleveland Indians and Washington's NFL team. Meanwhile, the real-life meanings attached to certain items, customs and historical figures got distorted or lost, and white Americans, for the most part, neither knew nor cared.
Chanel put headdresses on the runway in 2013, and Pharrell Williams donned one on the cover of Elle UK in 2014. A flowing, hand-painted organza skirt symbolizes the years that Michaels' ancestors spent observing and preserving nature.



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