'Identity by Design.'

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Smithsonian exhibits exquisite dresses

By Jerry Reynolds -- Today staff

WASHINGTON - Yes to opportunities for women in modern society; no to purity on a pedestal, no to the chador and burqa, and no to the off-record efforts of the Republican Study Committee in Congress to outlaw the pantsuit.

All that understood, it is still surely the case that most people, more than once in their lives, look to women for certain emanations of grace. Dresses help.

How and why they do will be left to the realm of cultural anthropology. But how much they do can be reckoned from the ''Identity by Design'' exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian now through Jan. 2, 2008. The Indian women who made many of the dresses on display here tanned hide, stretched it, scraped it, made it into patterns and collected beads and eyeteeth (two to an elk, as many as 150 to a dress). Then they got to work. That their creations now count among the glories of American culture is evident at a glance, and the NMAI exhibit invites a very prolonged gaze.

One assumes that whatever dresses do for people were of surpassing importance to cultures that put so much work into them. But we can't assume that the women who made them had any sense of putting themselves forward. They were part of their communities, and the dresses served their communities across generations. Colleen Cutschall, co-curator along with Emil Her Many Horses, is firm on the point; and the companion book of the same title never lets us forget it.

Clothes could reflect the hope and affection lavished on children; girls wore and made dresses during rites of passage; women expressed their love of family in the clothes they made, as women always have everywhere - but in Native cultures, they also wore their fine raiment to dance as testimony to the war-like prowess of their men, who were not to boast of it themselves.

And not to be forgotten, as the tribes encountered the cash economy of the settlers, dresses came to have a high value, involving dressmakers in barter and trade for the welfare of their families and tribes. Once the cultures that created the dresses on display here lost their historical resources, trade cloth became the new fabric of ancient skill. The cloth dresses on exhibit at NMAI are as beautiful as their elders of hide, and Gladys Jefferson, one of the six project consultants NMAI consulted with about its dress collection, is faithful to say what can be seen any summer on the Crow lands in Montana: belted cloth dresses are still common in traditional communities. Two of the most arresting photos in a companion book filled with them show a Blackfoot cloth dress from 1910 and a modern Cheyenne cloth dress, adorned with ''cut glass beads, ribbons, bells, hairpipes, fire-polished glass beads, rhinestones, horsehair, strap leather, rawhide, thread.'' The long list of materials that went into the Cheyenne cloth dress brings up an almost inevitable limitation of the show, astutely expressed by Janet Catherine Berlo in an essay from the ''Identity by Design'' companion book: ''A dress hanging in solitary splendor on a dress form in a museum display conveys a mistaken impression. In real life, on the special occasions on which many of these dresses were worn, the dress was part of an ensemble that may have included headgear, earrings, necklaces, shawls, bags, belts, leggings and moccasins. ... The aesthetic pleasure seems to consist of the very personalized bringing together of all of these items.''

Can this be why the absence of semi-individual aesthetics in historical Native dresses, put forward practically as doctrine in the NMAI materials, doesn't altogether satisfy? The ''Identity by Design'' exhibit dresses, so beautiful in their own right as to almost command some equivalent of art for art's sake among their creators, were seldom considered in their own right in real time. They spoke for family and community. But the women who made them would also absorb them in ensembles and accessories that satisfied whatever sense of personal aesthetic pleasure they may have indulged?

The first authoritative word on historical indigenous aesthetics is still to be written, so nothing prevents our flying the wilder kind of kite for a moment here. The current reviewer found that when a man is given a chance to cover the opening of an exhibit on Native women's dresses, the going won't always be so easy. One of several rejected approaches involved the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, of ''Buena Vista Social Club'' fame. Approached with a commission for a film on fashion, Wenders wasn't sure he even liked the subject, but he was more sure he wouldn't have anything to say on it anyway. Then he remembered getting into one set of clothes that seemed to wear him - and from that little power cell of insight, fundamentally unconventional in any Western sense, seemed to grow the film that became ''A Notebook on Cities and Clothes.'' For a while it seemed that a decent review of ''Identity by Design'' might grow from it too ... but then again, the Smithsonian Institute is having enough trouble without implying that it would help an appreciation of its exhibits to watch a German art house flick first.

And then in the ''Identity by Design'' companion book occurred these sentences, again from Berlo: ''While at first consideration items of clothing might be characterized as secular, in fact, the making and wearing of aesthetically pleasing garments has for centuries held a deeply spiritual place in Native women's lives. In Lakota ritual, one might sing 'Something sacred wears me' - a reversal of the expected. The individual wears sacred garments and thus the sacred forces 'wear' or animate the individual.''

Perhaps after all Wenders is onto something about the feel of everyday secular clothing. Perhaps Native women knew all about it.