If you think you’ve seen everything there is to see in pow wow regalia, think again. It seems like the outfits are getting a makeover all the time, with artistry and an explosion of colors, contemporary designs and patterns.
“Pow wow clothes are forever evolving. They are evolving at a faster pace now because of the Internet and social media. These allow dancers across the country to see the changes in dance clothes,” said Michael Knapp, dancer, designer and owner of KQ Designs Custom Beadwork, a studio based in Lexington, Kentucky.
It’s the large competition prize money that has the biggest effect on regalia said Jack Heriard, editor and publisher of Whispering Wind and who also published “The Evolution of Powwow Dance Clothes” for the Louisiana Indian Heritage Association.
“It is important to understand that while the clothing worn by today’s pow wow dancers has historical significance, they are ever changing and evolving. What was once considered fashionable in as little as ten years past, may be considered out of style today,” he wrote in a booklet.
ICTMN has called on dancers, regalia makers, pow wow organizers and educators to come up with a short list of what was then and now.
Here are four ways regalia has changed throughout the years and how:
1. Economic sense
Factor in the economy, said Heriard. The materials used in regalia change now and then depending on the business cycle.
“The elimination of beaded women’s leggings in the 1980’s was replaced by leggings decorated with sequins—good example of an economic reality.Ribbon-work applique in place of beadwork on yokes and shawls is another example. As economic times improve beadwork becomes more elaborate and plentiful,” he said.
In men’s fancy, a pow wow style that became popular in the 1940s and 1950s, a swing in the economy made an impact on the clothing. “The economy of the 1980s saw the elimination of the beaded harness and the emergence of the applique yoke with fringe and the use of more ribbons on shirts and bustles,” said Heriard.
“As the economy improved into the 1990s and to the present, beadwork in all its splendor and beauty is back as well as the making of more elaborate bustles. The arm bustles are also back, smaller but reminiscent of the 1940s,” he added.
2. Intertribal, not just one style
Knapp said the difference today is that the pow wows are intertribal. While in many cases dancers follow their own tribe and nation’s regalia patterns, a growing number draw up their own designs.
“It’s about how the individual feels, what is going on in their lives,” said Knapp.
In his studio, he has gotten orders from dancers that use traditional tribal patterns but combine it with their own style with the use of tri-cut and colorful beads, which were not available 20 years ago.
He cited an Ojibwe from Michigan who makes use of their tribe’s traditional flowers and berries patterns but updates her regalia with non-traditional and contemporary beads.
Photo Courtesy Christal Moose
World champion fancy dancer Larry Yazzie shows off his skills and regalia in youthful colors, accented in neon colors.
3. Let it shine
Traditional elements of bead and floral designs continue to be done by master beading makers and regalias are still passed on to the new generation, but Marsha MacDowell, professor and museum curator at the Michigan State University, said she has seen new materials and different techniques used in embellishing the clothing.
Fancy Dance Regalia drawing by Kathryn Darnell, in the book Contemporary Great Lakes Pow Wow Regalia, co-edited by Marsha MacDowell, 1997. (Photo courtesy of MacDowell)
MacDowell, who co-edited a book on Contemporary Great Lakes Pow Wow Regalia: Nda Maamawigaami (Together We Dance), 1997, cited painting on the fabric and the use of materials to make the regalia shine or show off a metallic effect.
About 15 to 20 years ago, rhinestones started showing up in beadwork design, said Knapp. Over the past couple of years, he said he is seeing more and more neon beads being used. He expects this trend to continue.
“Pow wow clothes are real art work. They are very beautiful,” he said.
World champion fancy dancer Larry Yazzie said he has seen neon colors in all categories, outside of traditional dances, as well as the use of neon duct tape and construction flagging material.
“The construction materials are becoming more synthetic or man-made materials rather than tradition items. For example: roach (fiber optic lines vs. porcupine hairs) and male leggings (shredded or untangled nylon rope in place of angora hide).”
4. The jingle-dress way
“As times change, so has the history and design of the dress,” said Roy Cook, Opata Osage, writer, singer and cultural consultant residing in San Diego County, California. “As tin, sheet metal and Copenhagen™ tobacco lids become available, the lids were formed into cones and pierced. Cowries and other shells have been used as regalia decoration since pre-history.”
Cook said that he has heard—depending on who he talks to—that traditionally there were 300 to 600 cones used on the dress.
The contemporary jingle dress regalia is colorful and bright just like the one shown here with butterfly design that is fully beaded. (Photo courtesy of KQ Designs Custom Beadwork)
Heriard said he believes that the poor economy in the 80s was the guiding force to using “used” stuff can lids to decorate the dresses.
“Over the decade and into the 21st century, less jingles are being worn, substituted by fully beaded, tight fitting vests or applique bodices,” he said.