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10 Fashion Faux Pas to Avoid at a Pow Wow

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At a pow wow, wardrobe choices often depend on your role at the event, but whether you’re dancing, singing or just watching, there are fashion faux pas to avoid.

Some universal standards apply at all pow wows, regardless of location, weather or purpose. Here are some tips to keep you from committing embarrassing – or offensive – fashion blunders:

Ripped, ragged or sagging pants

Pow wows represent a mixture of the social and the spiritual, said Reno Charette, a women’s traditional dancer and director of American Indian outreach at Montana State University Billings. If you’re not dancing, casual attire is appropriate, but it should fit properly and be in good repair. “Our young men go around with their pants hanging low,” said Charette, who is Crow and Turtle Mountain Chippewa. “That’s especially bad when they’re in the drum group and they lean forward.”

Shorts or miniskirts

Showing too much leg is inappropriate for anyone in the arena, including spectators, Charette said. She recommends a style that is “casual without being revealing.” Even in 100-degree weather, Daisy Duke-style shorts or miniskirts should be avoided.

For some male dancers, bare legs are part of the regalia, but singers and spectators should cover up, Charette said. “Some of our male dancers may not have their legs fully covered, but there is a standard of modesty that they abide by.”

Swimsuits, halter tops or bikini tops

Regardless of where they are in the arena, women should avoid tight clothing or anything that shows cleavage, Charette said. That includes halter tops, bikini tops and spaghetti straps. It also includes any style worn without appropriate underwear. “We know it’s hot, but please cover up,” she said. “Going braless at a pow wow is inappropriate. Bosoms need to be contained.”

Bare feet

Wearing shoes isn’t just a fashion statement, but also a safety precaution, Charette said. She recommends spectators wear closed-toed shoes to keep feet clean and safe. The same standard applies to dancers and singers, said Erny Zah, a singer and emcee who has traveled the pow wow circuit all over the country. “For singers, regardless of how hot it is, wear long pants and nice shoes,” he said. “The general rule is that you don’t want to show skin, so a long-sleeved shirt is also appropriate.”

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Clothing with profane or inappropriate slogans

An element of sacredness exists in the pow wow arena, said Zah, who is Navajo, Jicarilla Apache and Choctaw. Dress and appearance should show respect for that. “This is more than just a show,” he said. “For some of these tribes, this is their ritual that has been with them for generations. We’ve got to remember where it came from and respect that.”

Anything that can be considered revealing

When in doubt, go with your “Sunday best,” Zah said. If you’re dressed appropriately, you will be more likely to feel the spiritual power. “The overall goal of the pow wow is to help people,” he said. “So the singing, dancing, drums and feathers, all of that comes together. Everyone who takes part in that, whether singing or dancing or watching, will feel that and it will give them strength.”


Just as styles that are too casual or revealing should be avoided, so should clothing that is too dressy or formal. “There’s a line between too casual and too dressy,” said Sammy Tonkei White, a Kiowa emcee, who has been working with pow wows since 1959. “Just as young people who are not dressed appropriately should leave, it would look funny if an Indian got up and danced in a tuxedo.”

Cheap or fake regalia

Dancers in full dress can carry around as much as 40 extra pounds from their moccasins, leggings, belts, bustles, capes and other accessories, Charette said. But in the pow wow arena, quality matters. “It can get very heavy, but you wear it,” she said. “This is our formal wear, and as a dancer, the materials you select and the quality of your regalia should always bring pride to your tribe. It’s important to set for yourself a very high standard of quality, and do your best to meet that.”


Perhaps the most offensive thing you can wear to a pow wow is a costume. This includes the Boy Scouts who show up with war paint and synthetic feathers, or the wannabe Indians who dress in homemade buckskins or breechcloths. “A lot of this is non-Natives coming with warbonnets on and thinking that they’re honoring Native America,” Zah said. “For some reason, non-Natives think that mimicry is a way to honor, but these are our real clothes, not costumes.”

Anything that sends the wrong message

Pow wows often are open to the public and outsiders are welcome, Zah said. But the burden to educate the masses falls on participants – the organizers, emcees, dancers and singers – who are tasked with providing an authentic Native experience in an inauthentic world. Zah encourages all participants to think about their clothing before they attend a pow wow. “Native America is being presented in the wrong way because people are learning from teachers like Disney, Peter Pan and Pocahontas,” he said. “It’s important to do this right because we’re educating a new generation.”