Plains Indians Wearable Art at The Met

1780 Plains Indian horned headdress assembled from a powerful mix of materials including bison horns, deer and horsehair, porcupine quills, glass beads, wood, metal cones, cotton cloth, silk ribbon, and paint. From the Musée du quai Branly in Paris

1780 Horned headdress assembled from a powerful mix from mighty bison , deer, and horse. From Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

With all the attention this week on the couture gowns at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ball and Costume Institute show, don’t forget that some of the most elaborately embellished mixed-media wearable art is installed on the second floor in the expansive tribute, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, through this weekend.

The masterworks have been gathered from select European and North American collections and feature beadwork (mostly on leather), symbolic headdresses, and magical objects that directly telegraph the wearer’s connection to nature, the universe, and supernatural power.

The show was organized by the Musée du quai Branly, Paris, in collaboration with The Met, and in partnership with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, and features works from the 18th century through today (like the China exhibition in the other wing).

All-over beading on contemporary platform shoes by artist Jamie Okuma, 2014.

All-over beading on 2014 platform shoes by artist Jamie Okuma.

The curators track changes in materials, styles, and concerns of the Osage, Quapaw, Omaha, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota, Blackfeet, Pawnee, Kiowa, Comanche, and Meskwaki nations from the time they dominated the Midwest through the demise of the buffalo, the great wars, the transition to reservation life, and participation in 21st century art and culture.

Take a read through the curators’ story on this exhibition site and see some of our favorite looks on our Flickr feed, where we’ve organized the pieces in chronological order. We’re giving you a close-up view of some of the bead, quill, and embroidery work. You can see the transition from more shamanistic embellishment to use of imported Venetian glass beads, to the all-over bead style, and finally to current creations, such as Jaime Okuma’s beaded platform shoes.

Central painting on large-scale Mythic Bird robe from the Illinois Confederacy, 1700-1740. Courtesy: Musée du quai Branly in Paris

Central painting on Mythic Bird robe, Illinois Confederacy, 1700-1740. Courtesy: Musée du quai Branly in Paris

Much of the painting and handwork was divided according to gender – men painted figures and women did the beadwork and painted the geometric forms. This beautiful robe with a geometric mythological bird is one of the earliest surviving large-scale paintings from Plains tribes, and the beaded geometry of the 1895 Crow wedding robe is another marvel.

Compare the mixed-media horned headdresses from 1780s Missouri with Chief Red Cloud’s dramatic all-business trophy-feathered war bonnet of 1865. The fluffy-feathered 1925 creation from Cody’s Buffalo Bill Center almost makes you wonder if that version were strictly for wild west shows.

It’s also interesting to learn that the powerful symbolic paintings on shirts and shields were essentially “owned” by their creators.

Close up of the tiny Venetian seed beads used to decorate a Lakota woman’s dress (Teton Sioux), 1865. From the Smithsonian’s NMAI

Tiny Venetian seed beads decorate a Lakota woman’s 1865 dress. From the Smithsonian’s NMAI

Similar to what we learned about 1920s French couture designers’ concerns about unlicensed copies in FIT’s recent Faking It show, anyone wanting to replicate a particular war shirt or shield, had to be granted formal permission. The Met exhibition explains that replication permission of Plains Indian designs were closely held and protected for generations.

A full database of the amazing objects in the show is on the Met’s website, as well as the complete audio guide to the exhibit on the museum’s Soundcloud site. As you click on the audio tracks, you’ll see a small thumbnail of the object.

Listen to curator Gaylord Torrence, explain how French culture and embroidery techniques collided with Plains Indians culture three hundred years ago to such magnificent result:


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