Zitkala-sa and the Politics of Native American Dress


Photography by Joseph T. Keiley (1901)

For months now, the protests of the Dakota Pipeline near Cannonball, North Dakota have swept both US and International news. Occurring near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, groups like the Standing Rock Sioux, other American Indian communities, and their allies have faced cold weather and police aggression to protest the incoming Dakota Pipeline.

The Sioux, an umbrella term for the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, have a deep history with American oppression and tension. The most recent incident has reminded the US public of past events, like the Wounded Knee Massacre, which resulted in mass killings. It also recalls the colonization of American Indians, which began during the early years of the United States formation. One aspect of this colonization was the way American Indians dressed and adorned themselves.

The Politics of Hair

Before and during the US government’s migration to the West, Native people were encouraged to conform and adopt Western clothing. A popular method for colonization were boarding schools, which sought to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

By targeting Native youth, these schools forced children to speak English, move away from family, and adopt a Western way of life. This included cutting long hair and prohibiting traditional clothing, which are both symbols of Native identity.

These rules were meant to not only change the physical image of the children but also their spirit. They faced physical and mental abuse, alongside shame towards of their cultural heritage. One notable experience is of Zitkala-sa, a Yankton Dakota woman.

As a young girl, Zitkala-sa was sent to the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. “I was a wild little girl of seven. Loosely clad in a slip of brown buckskin, and light-footed with a pair of soft moccasins on my feet,” Zitkala-sa recalled in her book, American Indian Stories. “I was as free as the wind that blew my hair, and no less spirited than a bounding deer. These were my mother’s pride, – my wild freedom and overflowing spirits.” Early in her time at the school, she witnessed forced assimilation and experienced it first hand. “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities.”

The Politics of Zitkala-sa

Photographed by Gertrude Käsebier (1898)
Photographed by Gertrude Käsebier (1898)


As she grew older, Zitkala-sa became a writer and advocate. She also was photographed on numerous occasions wearing both Dakota and Western clothing. In a series of photographs by American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, Zitkala-sa is documented wearing a Western long-sleeved, puff-shouldered dress with her long hair loose. In another, she is wearing a coat, loose layers, and embroidered accessories. This combination of two different cultures reflected her identity. Zitkala-sa identified as a Yankton woman from Dakota territory, but she was also educated in White social mores through her time at the boarding school

In 1926, Zitkala-sa co-founded the National Council of American Indians, an organization that lobbied for Native American rights. In 2010, 70 plus years after her death, she was named an honoree of Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Project. She is remembered in American history for being, “The first American Indian woman to write her own story without the aid of an editor, interpreter or ethnographer.”

For more information on the current situation at Sitting Rock, visit Standingrock.org.

War Hero and…Fashion Writer? The Life of Edmonde Charles-Roux

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Fashion writer Edmonde Charles-Roux passed away at the age of 95. A noted author and journalist, Edmonde Charles-Roux lived a life that was full of adventure and fashion.

Charles-Roux was born in 1920 in a Parisian suburb in France. Her life changed dramatically during World War II, as she earned a nursing degree and volunteered in the French Foreign Legion as an ambulance driver. After being wounded during an aerial bombardment, she joined the French Resistance. She was later awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor for her work.

As the war ended, Charles-Roux became attached to the newly created fashion magazine, Elle. In 1948 she transitioned as a writer for Vogue Paris and by 1954 she was appointed as the editor in chief. Charles-Roux thrived in this position and is remembered for widening the publication’s cultural coverage. She is now cemented in fashion history for promoting the careers of many up-and-coming designers, like Yves Saint-Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro. She also included works by writers like Violette Leduc and photographs by Irving Penn and Guy Bourdin.

However, in 1966 Charles-Roux was dismissed from Vogue Paris. Although there was not any specific reasoning for the dismissal, Charles-Roux and many others believe that it was due to a cover she was planning for an upcoming issue. The photograph featured model of the moment, and Black American, Donyale Luna. Since the publication had never featured a model of African descent, Charles-Roux’s cover choice was shocking and may have lead to her disposal. Instead of using the initially planned cover, the magazine quickly replaced it with a photograph of two white models. Other factors, like Charles-Roux’s focus on cultural topics than fashion trends, may also have been a factor. “They didn’t like the way I was,” she told The New York Times. “For me, fashion has never been frivolous.”

Months after she was dismissed at Vogue Paris, Charles-Roux’s first novel, “To Forget Palermo,” won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. “When I was fired,” she stated in 1966, “I didn’t even know the book had been accepted for publication.”

“Chanel And Her World,” by Edmonde Charles-Roux; Image via Amazon

In 1981 next book, “Chanel: Her Life, Her World — and the Woman Behind the Legend She Herself Created” was published. “Chanel’s famous nostrils flared,” Charles-Roux said about speaking with the designer for the book. “She blew smoke. She would not supply information or photographs. I knew I would have to do it on my own. She would never talk to me again.”

Charles-Roux’s life was a constant theme of bravery and social justice, even when she didn’t understand the impact. Today, fifty years later after her dismissal, non-white models on magazine covers are still a rarity. It appears the fashion world still has a lot to learn.

A Taste For Style: The Innovative Career of Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach

Image via CBB413 (Flickr)

Fashion designer Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach was a woman who made her own opportunities. Today she’s living a quiet life, but during her heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of Vogue and The New York Times often reported on Birrenbach’s successful womenswear line. Birrenbach was also one of the first Persian fashion designers to find success in Western fashion.


Birrenbach was born into a wealthy family in Iran. At 15, she left the country for Indiana to join her brothers. After graduating high school, the designer attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (1). She then worked for a fashion house but quickly discovered her passion for creating her own line. “I soon realized that I had to follow my dream and told my boss that I would like to start my own business, but did not have the necessary capital to do so,” Birrenbach told Voice of America. “He had a splendid idea and responded: I will fire you so that you can start your business with the unemployment money.”

Fashion had always been a prominent feature in Birrenbach’s life. In the Voice of America interview, the designer recalled her early intention to dress the world. “Already at age eight, I asked my mother if I could attend a special school to learn how to design and make clothes. I intended to be the next Christian Dior.”


When beginning her career in the 1960s, the designer gained access to one of the largest department stores in the New York City, Bergdorf Goodman. “When they saw my designs, they placed a substantial order. In reality, Bergdorf Goodman was my first investor. From then on, all went very well…,” Birrenbach recalled. The designer’s relationship with Bergdorf Goodman was so strong that her designs were featured in the store’s windows.

As her name grew in the industry, Birrenbach developed a reputation for her “East Meets West” aesthetic. Her first design inspiration was based on her father’s 150 year old abba, but she then transitioned to a 1970s bohemian aesthetic, and later, a broad-shouldered 1980s silhouette.

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“The American Eagle with Silk Lame Skirt by Cleopatra” Image via CBB413

During the 1970s the designer married Thomas Birrenbach, a German steel executive. Thomas Birrenbach’s occupation led to opportunities to travel the world. While abroad, she developed a number of projects that ranged from being an advisor to the National China Textile Corporation (2) to introducing Western merchandising to the Russian Ministry of Light Industries and Textiles (3). Birrenbach promoted this initiative of Western manufacturing in India, China, and Scotland. Scottish knitting manufacturer Peter Scott lauded Birrenbach for her efforts and stated that she “advanced their industry a decade in technology” (4).


After years of traveling the world, Birrenbach returned to the United States to relaunch her fashion design career. Her designs were sold on New York’s Seventh Avenue and consisted of eveningwear, ready to wear, accessories, and even menswear. She continued her “East Meets West” aesthetic with collections inspired by crescent moons and starbursts (Fall 1983), Marcos Grigorian’s “Earth Work” (Fall 1984), and 16th-century miniature illustrations of Persian writer Ferdowsi’s poetry (Fall 1985). The designer embraced embroidery, quilting, pleating techniques, and digital computer designs, which was considered a new innovation (6).

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Image via CBB413 (Flickr)

Alongside her fashion design career, Birrenbach entered the food industry. She was one of the first to create coffee associated with a high-end name and sell it in major speciality stores.


Cleopatra Broumand Birrenbach had a natural ability to create her own projects, find her own opportunities, and build an empire that may not have been available otherwise. For more on Birrenbach’s life and career, check out this Voice of America interview and these series of photographs on Flickr.


(1) “INDIANA AND CLEOPATRA” by Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday, New York, February 23, 1984

(2) “INDIANA AND CLEOPATRA” by Sheryl Fitzgerald, Newsday, New York, February 23, 1984

(3) Cleopatra for Moscow and New York” by Oleg Ivanov, First Editor in Chief, Sovietskaja Kultura Newspaper, Moscow, USSR (translation), August 22, 1988.

(4) “Fashion designer girdles the globe” by Gwen Salley-Schoen, The Spokesman-Review Spokane Chronicle, June 2, 1987.

(5) “Looking at the earth, stars and beyond” by Marty Primeau, The Dallas Morning News, August 26, 1984.

(6) “COMPUTER FOR A DESIGNER.” Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), 1985., F4, Biography in Context, EBSCOhost (accessed October 4, 2016).


The Fashion Statements of Coretta Scott King

Throughout her life and advocacy, Coretta Scott King was known for her calm demeanor and well-dressed attire. In high-stressed situations, she always kept her grace, all while in days suits that were popular during the late 1950s and early 1960s. She emphasized her ladylike style with curled hair, a well-manicured face, and a striking hat. Coretta’s style was not only a sign of her good taste, but it also signified that an African American woman could be well-dressed despite the social, political, and economic hardships placed on Black Americans.

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King was born in a rural town in Alabama and studied under a scholarship at the New England Conservatory in Boston. There she studied singing and met the man who would change her life, Martin Luther King, Jr. Their dates consisted of conversations about race and politics, and although she wanted to have a career in singing, she gave it up to marry him.

About their early life, Coretta is quoted, “After we married, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Before long, we found ourselves in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott. As the boycott continued, I had a growing sense that I was involved in something so much greater than myself, something of profound historic importance.” This catapulted Coretta into a role that was a combination of First Lady and civil rights advocate. While in this role, she understood the importance of appearance in correlation to one’s character and social position, especially in the formal days of the mid-twentieth century.

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For her 1953 marriage to MLK Jr., Coretta wore a cap-sleeved, A-Line gown made from lace and tulle with a matching veil and set of fingerless gloves. When in the iconic March on Selma, Coretta stood out against the crowd in a coral-colored suit set, which was a visual statement. She appeared as a proper and professional woman of her time, which was a direct comment to the prejudice against Black Americans.“I feel like she definitely related to Jackie O. When you see her in that orange suit in that final march, she felt like she was the First Lady of the march. No one else is really dressed like that.” said costume designer Ruth Carter about recreating Coretta’s style for the film, Selma. “ She really wanted people to know that she cared, and that she was there in the foreground in support of the movement.”

The icon always accessorized her ladylike looks with eye-catching hats, like a white beret at a candlelight vigil for her husband or a black feathered piece she wore in 1964. She always wore some type of adornment around her neck, whether it was a string of pearls or a brooch. Her clothing was never too tight and always pulled away from the body, like when she wore a satin frock with Ed Sullivan.

Her fashion choices were feminine, yet strong. She wore all of her accessories and colorful outfits with an unapologetically graceful ease. Instead of being a figure that was defined by her style, Coretta Scott King used fashion as a form of self-expression and educational tool.

Tennis, Fashion, and the 1970s

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The relationship between fashion and tennis seems like a relatively new phenomenon. However, this duo has been working together for decades. One significant moment occurred in the 1970s when a wave of feminism infused with the game. What resulted was a fashion moment that gave female players the opportunity to showcase their personal style.

The Rules of The Game

Although a centuries-old game, women gained the right to play competitively in 1884. Their experience in competitive tennis was still complicated even after winning the right to play. While they competed in physically demanding matches, women earned less and were required to cover their bodies in long sleeves and skirts. And if that wasn’t enough, they were expected to maintain a slim and feminine shape.

By the 1970s, things were changing for women in tennis. In 1973 tennis player Billie Jean King created the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), an organization that provides touring opportunities and advocating for females in the sport. Some of the early accomplishments of the organization include the creation of a tour for female players and demanding better pay that is comparable to what their male peers receive. The beginnings of the WTA occurred with second-wave feminism in the United States, which embraced women’s sexuality and equality. Also influencing society was disco music. Fashion was taken over with short hemlines and tight clothing, which was often worn by dancers when grooving to fast-paced music in crowded nightclubs.

Female tennis dress reflected America’s disco culture by revealing more skin than ever. It began during the Mod-era 1960s when tennis skirts rose above the knee. Lengths intensified in the 70s, with skirts meeting at mid-thigh, which revealed full bottoms during play. In 1976, player Chris Evert embraced this trend by wearing frilly pink bottoms underneath her skirt while playing a match. Every move she made, a sliver of ruffles peaked out. This was quite a change from the long pleated skirts of their early 20th century sisters.

Chris Evert was a tennis darling in the 1970s. She began her career in her teens and quickly became an ‘It Girl’ in the tennis world. Her clothing choices reflected this role with thigh-grazing dresses in graphic patterns and a youthful ponytail parted in the middle. As she won and became a powerful force on the court, she wore custom-made dresses by fashion designer Ted Tinling. Tinling was an English fashion designer who dressed some of the most popular female players in tennis. To wear a custom designed Tinling meant that a player was the best of the best.

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Another Tinling wearer was Billie Jean King. King famously wore a Tinling piece for her ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match with Bobby Riggs. King was known for her aggressive play, which required practicality in her sportswear. However, she accented her short white dresses with fashion touches like pointed collars, pleated skirts, and graphic patterns.

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Although older than many of her tennis competitors, amateur player Renée Richards had the “tennis look.” Tall with high cheekbones and gorgeous chestnut brown hair, Richards had beauty and excellent athletic skills. As a Yale graduate, a prominent ophthalmologist, winner of a singles title, and coach to Czech tennis player Martina Navratilova, one would think Richards had it all.

However, Richards became one of the most controversial figures in 1970s tennis because she was trans. Nearly forgotten today, Richards was one of the first transgendered persons to become a public figure in sports. She was outed after she won a chance to compete in the U.S. Open in 1976 and once the secret was revealed, Richards was seen as a threat. Many claimed that her strength would be too overpowering against female competitors. Instead of hiding, Richards embraced and accentuated her appearance. She always sported gold hoop earrings, mini dresses, and after noticing players wearing crosses, Richards added a mezuzah necklace to her wardrobe to display her Jewish faith.

Despite these three women having different experiences on the court, they all wore apparel that showcased a sense of style. They are a prime example of how a sports player can use stylistic cues to display their personal taste or objection to unfair sexist rules. This tradition of fashionable apparel in tennis continues today, especially with the outfits of Venus and Serena Williams. Instead of it being a distraction, which some officials claim, this form of clothing gives a sense of personality and insight. Some would say it is the perfect match.