Since that very first Gaultier acquisition, I’ve started broadening my search for even more vintage items that have so-called Native-inspired elements on them in order to reclaim the appropriation. (I zeroed in on vintage because I do not want to give money directly to those who are currently making these insensitive designs.) I’ve been surprised at just how easy it’s been to find pieces—mostly because fashion has evolved in today’s political climate. On the whole, designers are much more sensitive to being culture vultures, and the prevalence of appropriative items on the runways has drastically decreased. Also, when a designer does appropriate, they are more readily called out on mainstream and social media. Yet on the vintage sites, these items are still widely available and reflect a comparatively lawless era.
On The RealReal, for instance, there’s a gold cocktail ring shaped like a Native man wearing a headdress that’s currently in my shopping cart. There’s also a Versace shirt from the ’90s on 1stDibs that features warriors and Buffalo Bill, an American soldier and so-called Indian fighter. Hermès even has a whole range of silk scarves featuring cartoonish Indigenous imagery on them that continues to pop up on the various resale sites. A plethora of options are on my watch list, though each item is pricey and requires saving up.
I used to see these types of appropriative pieces as something to laugh at with my friends. But now I see them more as relics to be properly collected, archived, and held in safekeeping by the very people these pieces exploit. Sure, procuring these items costs money and takes up space in my wardrobe, but the goal is to preserve and document an era in fashion that’s slowly becoming extinct. Taking possession of them almost feels like a calling to document how my people have been treated in the fashion landscape and how we’ve been able to rise above. We have had an undeniable influence on mainstream fashion—even if it’s been expressed in insensitive ways—and if we don’t document that, who will?
Turns out, I’m not alone in this approach. I was surprised to learn that many of my Native friends and family do this exact same thing. “If I do it, it’s always done for the sense of irony,” my friend Riley Kucheran, a professor in Toronto, tells me after I explained my Gaultier purchase. “I feel an odd sense of duty when purchasing culturally appropriated designs. But I’ll rarely spend much money—and more often than not, I’ll just hide the item behind a stack of clothes.” Another friend, Sarain Fox, shares that she’s actually been collecting these kinds of goods, from fashion to housewares, her whole life. “I have Geronimo dolls, polyester shirts with Navajos on them,” she says. “You name it, I’ve bought it.”