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Analysis of Indigenous Fashion in Western Civilization

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Indigenous people have been here for centuries, years before Europeans made contact and colonized Canadian soil. In the past decades, new relationships have developed between Indigenous artists and Canadian’s people in the industry, increasing representation and creating visibility for Indigenous artists giving them a voice to educate, confirm their feelings, and for self-expression. Traditional clothing was seen as something to be replaced by a more enlightened, unified look of western styles. The elimination of the traditional clothing of Aboriginals by Europeans is a prominent way for the colonizers to strip Indigenous Peoples of their cultures, identities and to impose new ones in their place. Indigenous artists have fought to be seen and heard throughout the mass amounts of western culture and finally, they have received recognition.

Within the past years, Indigenous fashion has increasingly appeared in western culture. Facing vast issues such as the use of Indigenous’ different designs to mass-produce products with these designs, the cultural appropriation surrounding the mass production and the injustice towards Indigenous culture. Western civilization within the past few decades has made luxury designers and mainstream fashion increasingly popular. Shown throughout our culture, there has been expansion and development in interest around things traditional, ethnic, and folkloric, Indigenous fit into those. The upsurge of attraction to these designs caused fashion designers to gain inspiration from diverse cultures from around the world and incorporate elements, such as design features, and patterns, into their own pieces of clothing.

There is a shared contemporary experience among Indigenous people in Canada, where they face a sense of uncertainty, loss, or shame regarding their identity, and their community’s identity. Mass amounts of designers reject the idea of cultural appropriation calling their work a form of cultural appreciation, claiming inspiration from multiple cultural influences. Although this is what makes fashion evolve, without recognizing where your textiles and designs are coming from, one can argue this is not appreciated at all. The tradition and culture behind the use of beads, patterns and other elements have historical ties to each Nation and cultural appropriation is a misrepresentation of the meaning of the traditional cultural expression and a loss of control of it’s meaning. As an illustration, is the incorporation of an Indigenous feathered headdress; a traditional element with spiritual meaning into a fashion creation can strip it of the sacredness, as well as deprive it of the symbolic significance. Designers are showing a power display between the appropriator and the appropriated, essentially displaying how little we care about promoting decolonization, and helping Indigenous reclaiming space.

An exhibit called “Wearing our Identity – The First Peoples Collection” at the McCord Museum, in Montreal, displays how Indigenous clothing has meaning behind it. David McCord, the creator of the exhibit speaks how important clothing is to Indigenous people “clothing connects a person to the natural world, and garments fashioned from animal hide or using plant resources display the bridge between the human and the non-human spheres. Clothing often combines the aesthetic and spiritual with the practical, and ornamental items such as beaded moccasins and cradleboards are used in everyday life … Clothing represents both a mode of resistance and a means of acknowledging indigenous history. Documenting the evolution of particular items of clothing can illustrate cross-cultural exchange and also helps to assess a previously self-contained culture’s evolution as it is forced to integrate and adapt.” The cultural meaning behind Indigenous clothing has more meaning than aesthetic purposes and extends beyond the visual level, it displays and celebrates their distinctiveness.

It is because of colonization and commodification around Indigenous culture, that their culture has been cheapened. The systematic oppression towards Aboriginals has been heavily enhanced with the upswing of social media. When people imagine native fashion, it’s often based on tropes and stereotypes, the ignorance of western civilization to embezzle designs without credit, background knowledge or permission only adds to the ongoing colonization of the Indigenous. Completely disarming the stories behind the art they are stealing, only encouraging that Indigenous people do not have a voice. Sage Paul is a fashion designer and the founder of Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto. She says she interprets any type of fashion as a way to tell a story; fashion is like a language. Paul explains that through fashion Indigenous are able to identify different nations through clothing; she gives other Indigenous artist’s a platform to display and reveal their art.

The first annual Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto took place from May 31 to June 3, 2018, and ran had four days of workshops, curated exhibitions, artist talks, runway showcases, panels, lectures, hands-on workshops and a trade and consumer marketplace. Sage Paul created a space that uplifts, legitimizes and honours the artist’s from across North America. For many Aboriginal Peoples participating in the Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto was a new, revolutionary experience, being appreciated in an industry that exploited and eliminated the idea of Indigenous communities. “Indigenous fashion can redefine mainstream fashion and art: our fashion illustrates our stories, traditions, sovereignty and resilience,’ said Paul in a press release issued Thursday. “IFWTO is about carving out space for Indigenous fashion, craft and textiles.” 

Bringing stories from elders is very important in Aboriginal culture. They impart tradition, knowledge, culture, values, and lessons using role modelling traditional practices. The Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto brings a sense of home to the Harbourfront, encouraging those to take people to reclaim not only their Indigenous identity but also pride in their heritage. “Years ago, Mi’kmaq people and Indigenous people, they were ashamed. And not a lot of people would actually come out and say who they really were,’ said Gillam.” Zack Gillam a Mi’kmaq teenager from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador who started his own clothing line; his main goal is to show Indigenous pride. “In my parents’ time, they never saw Indigenous people in the limelight,” she said. “Both of them struggled a lot with racism because they are visibly native. That’s another huge reason why this fashion week exists, is to combat stuff like that.” There has been an obvious suppression and neglect of Indigenous Peoples throughout western society, shown by both Paul and Gilliams stories.

Another event called “The Red Dress Event” in Vancouver, BC is a fashion show that highlights the tragedy encompassing the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Models wearing pieces by Indigenous designers such as Yolanda Skelton, Debra Sparrow, Pam Baker, Morgan Asoyuf, Evan Ducharme and Nipii Designs. Skelton says ‘What connects us through this colour red is: red is the colour of our life’s blood, it connects all human beings, cross-culturally’. Tied to the ‘REDress Project’ started by Jaime Black is trying to continually remind Canadians about violent crimes against Indigenous women. “The Red Dress Event is a way to advocate for the safety, respect, and dignity for all Indigenous women and girls through fashion. “Everyone knows someone who has gone missing in our community,” she said. “It’s terrible and I know it’s a hard thing to talk about but we still have to talk about it while we can.”, multiple things lead back to the neglect of Indigenous Peoples from the federal government. “Thousands of missing and murdered women, high rates of suicide among our youth, the incarceration of Indigenous men, poverty, lack of drinking water and educational needs plague our communities – not to mention the constant struggle for jurisdiction over traditional lands. Much work remains to be done.” The RCMP estimate a total of 1,181 Indigenous women went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012; but only recently said in 2019, that they will be taking ‘give careful considerations’ towards the missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

In Toronto, June 1960 the newspaper Style reported on the “Inuvik, Near Arctic Ocean, First Fashion Show”, featuring statements on how Indigenous youth wore ‘slim jims, gay cotton shirtwaists, bouffant skirts’ on the runway. There was an observation of the western-style used by the Indigenous youth, that was questioned by Torontonians; overlooking the fact that contemporary Indigenous artists have been treated differently throughout time, and have learnt to adapt to what is popular in Canadian society. “Eskimo children like ‘southern’ clothing and their idea of a fine time is to dress up in cowboy clothes. On very cold days – it sometimes goes to 50 below – they wear typical Eskimo clothes to school… but generally, they wear dresses, or jeans, and tartan shirts” (Gentile, P., & Nicholas, J. 2013). Our outer-body appearance, how we clothe and care for ourselves speaks to everyone we meet, it reveals how we construct our social identity and how their cultural identity is shown to them. For Indigenous Peoples, clothing relays messages and individualizes while encourages resilience for everyone within the community. Bead work is one example that is and has been significant in representing resilience as well as highlighting the distinct cultural value of Indigenous peoples. Another is weaving, that’s used as bonding experience between family and community, many types of weaving such as Ravenstail weaving are regarded as some of the most difficult techniques in the world, this increases interest around weaving but also can discourage many from wanting to take part in this tradition as it can take up to a year to finish a rug or blanket.

There is a shared contemporary experience among Indigenous people in Canada, where they face a sense of uncertainty, loss, or shame concerning their identity, and their communities identity. An example of this is shown by Kate, a Métis woman “Like many Native people, I struggle with my identity. Because of racism, cultural genocide and policies that have encouraged Native people to abandon their heritage, many of us have come to feel ashamed, confused or embarrassed about identifying ourselves as Native. From this confusion, we must struggle to re-name ourselves to understand what that means” (Anderson, K. 2000). There is a complex relationship between the uprising of attention Indigenous artist’s have received in the previous years, and the attention they received during the colonial era

Riley Kucheran was hired by Ryerson University to ‘Indigenize’ their curriculum “He examined clothing as a weapon of colonization in the residential school system, but also looked at how Indigenous communities have used clothing to reclaim identity. “While I talk about cultural appropriation, I also give examples of how we can work better together … I also talk about contemporary fashion designers, because a lot of people don’t know that Aboriginal fashion designers are working today — it’s not just historical clothing. And most importantly, I featured the voices of designers themselves.” In the lecture space, he was given he spoke on cultural appropriation, gave wisdom on how western civilization and communicate indigenous and current contemporary Indigenous artists and the work they’re creating. Clothes have been used as a colonial weapon against Indigenous, and Indigenous have had to reconcile with being an artist in western society.

For instance, Victoria’s Secret has had many moments of cultural appropriation but one specific case is in 2012 when model Karlie Kloss walked the runway in an Aboriginal headdress. Kloss was the one who apologized in the situation, saying the use of the headdress was to parade how indigenous people are associated with Thanksgiving. In 2017, the annual Victoria’s Secret show took place in Shanghai, and one of the segments of the fashion show was named ‘Nomadic Adventures’ and it showcased multiple Indigenous-inspired outfits. Nadine Leopold, an Australian model walked the runway with a feathered headdress that looked akin to headdresses that are used in Indigenous culture a traditional war bonnet, which is explained to be a symbol in many Indigenous tribes that shows respect and bravery within the tribe. Another model appearing in the 2017 fashion show, Taylor Hill was part of the ‘Nomadic Adventures’ segment, who had traditional cuffs, feathers, weaving styles and ‘Navajo-style beading.”. In 2012 Victoria’s Secret pulled the cultural appropriation but for the 2017 case, which one could say is coherently worse, as it was numerous models who participated in this cultural appropriation. Fashion is used not only to symbolize culture or spirituality, but it can also be used as a form of liberation. Fashion can also be used as a tool of oppression. Within society, how you dress is an expression of personality, faith, choice and identity. Taking directly from other cultures can affect how those cultures are viewed in the larger realm of society.

There’s a large question at hand here, how can we appreciate Indigenous culture without appropriating it? The main way of doing this is giving credit where credit is due and understanding how wearing certain things can mean a variety of things in different cultures. There’s a difference between cultural borrowing and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is using design without permission and causing emotional, spiritual or cultural harm. Cultural borrowing otherwise called cultural exchange is explained as taking ideas, and practices from another culture; when you exchange things you often take them, but return with something of value or of greater value. Cultural borrowing is a necessary means of growth for the human species, this is how we learn new things, find new muses and gain valuable knowledge. Appropriating Indigenous tattoo designs, braided hair, animal skin jackets, weaving techniques and beading skills are not bringing them to the mass of western culture in a hasty manner, it is simply depleting the purpose of bringing the designs, patterns, and artwork forward. Without giving credit to the Indigenous peoples who created the designs, it only brings Aboriginal artists back to when they were striving to even get a sliver of recognition in mass media and Canadian society.

Learning from our past mistakes is growth for our future. For decades, Canadian mass/popular culture pushed away from the idea of Aboriginal; using their own designs and textiles as a colonizing weapon, but recently has become more accepting in understanding Indigenous traditions, cultures, and methodology. Understand the use of cultural appropriation throughout our own society breaks barriers and gives credence where it is due. Having events such as “The Red Dress Event” and the Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto raises awareness around the traditional side of fashion, the discrimination Indigenous still face and resilience they must have to continue within this industry.

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