Welcome back to week two of our #ColonialCouture roundtable! Today’s post is by Jessica Yirush Stern, associate professor of history at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
How desperately I wanted to get inside. Historians are like fleas, on ride-alongs with the authors of their sources. My hosts were all males (white traders, agents, travellers), and none of them crossed the threshold of eighteenth-century Southeastern Indian homes or workplaces, with pens in hand, set to record women as they fashioned clothes. Sure, I have access to many of the purchases that preceded those moments of artistry. I have a few drawings of women and men donning the final products of these efforts.[i] But left to my imagination is how Southeastern Indians envisioned themselves as designers.
In what follows, I imagine that a single Yuchi Indian designer created a couple of the pieces German traveler Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck sketched when he visited at Mount Pleasant in the 1730s, and I stage an interview with that designer.[ii] We all know that European eyes and sketches can be unreliable, but I have come to believe that von Reck was a trustworthy observer.[iii] Because I have not been able to locate any sources in which Southeastern Indian women reflect on their design choices, what follows may sound anachronistic, with its usage of modern design terms. What I hope to create is an image of Indian women as artisans who were apply to apply these skills to the new materials they encountered through the Atlantic trade.
Yuchi Town Fashion Week, 1736
Me: You just introduced your new collection. How did it go?
Designer: As you know, the reaction was mixed, but I guess that’s what I should have expected. I took a big risk with some of my pieces.
Me: It seems like most of the divided reaction centered around your matchcoats. Why did you choose to focus on match coats? [See Figure 1]
Designer: Matchcoats have long been a staple in the Yuchi fashion world. They are flexible and simple in form, allowing these blank canvases to serve as battlegrounds between artists who doubled-down on tradition and those who want to experiment with the new materials offered by their European neighbors to the East and South. Most new designers are expected to enter into this debate.
Me: If I may describe your two centerpiece matchcoats to our readers, I think it would be helpful. One matchcoat was a simple buffalo skin. There was not even a clasp; it had to be held by the model. The other was an unaltered horse blanket, equally as plain. Many of the audience members were left scratching their heads. Some critics derided you as lazy, and sneered that the horseblacket could be purchased by anyone for a mere two deerskins in Charles Town. Could you explain these pieces and the points you were trying to make? Because if you see yourself fitting into the debate about tradition and new materials, I am not sure the audience knows how.
Designer: Certainly. I was trying to isolate the boarders of the Yuchi’s fashion landscape. Skins and European textiles are our fashion’s building blocks, and we need to seriously engage with them before we decide how to proceed. We are in a critical moment in fashion. We are being bombarded with new materials, and some designers are incorporating these new ribbons, beads, and laces into their pieces so quickly. Let’s pause to consider. My unadorned buffalo skin matchcoat draws the spectator’s eye to the health of the steed’s fur, the craftsmanship of the dressing, and the care that transported this exotic creature’s pelt overland to the Yuchi artist’s hands. You can see its luster, heaviness, and the way this material can add clear structure to designs. Following closely behind the buffalo skin I placed a model draped in the equally pure canvas offered by the Europeans. An off-the-shelf woolen blanket, red boarder still intact, draped the model’s shoulders, demonstrated the qualities of lightness and fluidity that designers could exploit with this material. I am asking artists, then, to transcend the tradition debate and reconnect with the inherent qualities of their media.
Me: Given that response, I wonder if you may be critical of the darling of the show, the skin shirt. Critics marveled at the designer’s slight-of-hand which obscured the material composition of the garment. [See Figure 2]
Designer: This piece was clever. Usually you see designers create traditional indigenous pieces using European materials, like a matchcoat made out of woolens, but here you see the designer doing the opposite. She creates a European shirt using Yuchi materials and motifs. It is subversive, and it makes you wonder why our neighbors are not as inclined to adopt our materials and designs into their articles as we are to adopt theirs. So although the designer is making a different point than I am making, I think we are both asking our peers to consider what our fashion norms should be as we gain more and more access to European goods.
Me: Thanks for your time. I look forward to seeing your next collection.
[i] See, in particular, chapters 2 and 4 of my book, The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
[ii] Phillipp Georg Friedrich von Reck, Von Reck’s Voyage: Drawings and Journal of Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck, Edited by Kristian Hvidt (Savannah, Ga: Geehive Press, 1990).
[iii] My strongest piece of evidence that he was drawing what he saw is contained in a sketch he did of a woman weaving a mat, which you can see in Hvidt’s edited version of Von Reck’s Voyage, p. 114. Without understanding its significance, he accurately drew the looped-square pattern tattoos on her arms, which was a common motif in Southeastern Indian iconography during the post-Mississippian era. This indicates that he was a faithful recorder, even of things he did not understand. For information about this motif see Gregory A. Waselkov and Ashley A. Dumas, “Cultural Revitalization and Recasting Identities in the Post-Mississippian Southeast,” in Forging Southeastern Identities: Social Archaeology and Ethnohistory of the Mississippian to Early History South, edited by Gregory A. Waslkove and Martin T. Smith (University of Alabama Press, 2017), 10.