A Navajo Dress For the White Man

Tlaakal (Navajo dress); ca. 1860
Kansas State University Historic Costume and Textile Museum, 1986.69.1
Commercial and hand spun yarn

Navajo women constructed this dress by fashioning together two rectangular woven panels, leaving openings for the head and arms of the wearer. The warp material of this dress is a wool yarn, in a dark green or dull green color. Additionally, there are four different weft materials: hand spun blue (indigo dye) wool, hand spun black (native dye) wool, commercial blue (indigo dye) yarn, and bayeta-style red (cochineal dye) wool. Bayeta is a traditional Navajo weaving style, where the artist utilizes unraveled yarn from a former garment. This particular red and black fabric design was popular among white Americans who bought indigenous objects, such as native baskets, blankets, and bowls, for their domestic Indian collections. In fact, you can find eerily similar dresses in a number of museum holdings and books on Navajo art.

This dress could have been constructed in the workshop of a Native American boarding school, in which indigenous children were “educated” according to white Euro-American standards. The dress is representative of the commercialized interest in Navajo objects during the nineteenth century. In boarding school workshops, Native American girls had to create indigenous-style products, not for their cultural or spiritual use, but for so-called “Indian Corners” of white American collectors. Indian Corners were areas in non-native households that displayed native artifacts following a widespread, nineteenth-century craze for indigenous handicrafts. This interest in native art in the wake of American modernism, according to the historian Elizabeth Hutchinson, convinced policymakers that art was an important aspect of “traditional” native culture worth preserving.


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Brent Weaver