Sacred Seams: Regalia Lost and Found
Every Saturday of the 1980s, I watched “Style with Elsa Klensch” on CNN. It was a 22-minute show about fashion, beauty and decorating. I thought if I sat close enough to the television screen I might be sucked into the filament and transported on a phosphorus cloud to Tokyo, Milan, Paris, wherever Klensch was reporting from that morning. The show was my elixir of life, infused with hope that someday I would see all those amazing locales in the flesh. “Style” was also my momentary escape from the matchy-matchy rigidity of Southern life.
I tried recreating some of the fashions that transfixed me, especially drawn to Norma Kamali’s African-inspired prints and the billowing, asymmetrical drama of avant-garde designer Issey Miyake. That meant ridicule at my predominantly white high school, the style kingdom of Steel Magnolias. I hunted the funky, feral aisles of thrift stores for oversized men’s suit jackets I could stab into submission with an absurdly large brooch, rolled-up sleeves to reveal the fine satin lining inside, parachute pants with a dozen pockets — some of them with working zippers but no point of entry, like a door to nowhere in the Winchester Mystery House.
A cross between the British pop trio The Thompson Twins and post-Huxtable Lisa Bonet is where I found myself trying to capture my signature style. Beside the butt of jokes in school hallways came fashion-shaming by my mom, because at 16, I wasn’t taking my clothing or my life seriously enough. In response, I posted on my bedroom door an edict in collage form that included a quote by Henry David Thoreau:
“ …beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”
I wanted to be Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, making my own prom dress out of embroidered scraps. I remember feeling I wanted so much to be at home in my clothes, and not just because I bought them. I wanted to feel I belonged to them.
These thoughts surfaced in the time I’ve spent conducting marketing and project development as part of a team charged with hacking the breast pump at the Make The Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon later this month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Founded by Rachel Lorenzo, Indigenous Women Rising is her idea to take on the challenge of carefully modifying regalia of Laguna Pueblo women’s sacred garments so they can nurse their children while staying engaged in tribal ceremony is a brilliant one.
Because I am not a member of the tribe, I am not able to engage in certain aspects of ceremonial life, cannot touch the garments without permission — obviously and rightly so. But I did get close enough to witness the finished, modified dresses with their ribbons and lace, colorful aprons, the woolen manta (a thin, rectangular blanket worn as a dress by Pueblo women, and other tribes of the Americas) cinched tightly at the waist with a woven sash. The multiple layers of ceremonial garments incited responses by Pueblo women eager to experience a little convenience while feeding their babies over the course of feast days and other ceremonies, catering to family and community. It’s helped me realize what my struggle to find my “style” as a young, black, North American woman was really about.
I didn’t have ritual clothing or tribal designs to help shape my identity.
My ancestors were brought to these lands naked, save for rags and the chains that yoked us together, in a 500-year-long, living death. What I might have worn, my people’s sacred garb, was lost before we embarked on this forced journey to the Americas via the Middle Passage. Ancient knowledge of who I might be is the stuff of dreams and the property of Ancestry.com following submittal of spit in a tube. Almost every physical manifestation of my ritual belonging sank in the waters of the Atlantic long ago. I mean, we have the t-shirt and blue jeans, thanks to Jacob W. Davis née Jacob Youphes, the Latvian immigrant who invented jeans, and Levi Strauss, who made them famous. Then there’s “stylin’ and profilin’” in a hip-hop tracksuit. (Thank you, Run DMC.) There are ritual clothing items of the teen Bildungsroman: James Dean in tight jeans, his angel-white shirt, the sacrament of his blood-red jacket. (Thank you, Hollywood costume designer Moss Mabry). There’s whatever Queen Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter and Robin Rihanna Fenty are into right now. (Thank you, Bea and RiRi.) But everyone has access to these.
So what do black North Americans of the Diaspora wear to approximate ceremonial garb?
Sunday Best. Black folks have the ritual of wearing our finery to church. In Tallahassee where I grew up, we went to an interfaith, new age church, but the summers were spent in Miami with my grandparents, and that meant a spiritual residency at the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E. Church) every Sunday, dead or alive. I remember regal black men in finely tailored, three-piece suits, crossing the sun-soaked church parking lot, the sound of their highly polished dress shoes pulverizing white gravel that kept us all off the manicured grass. Elegant black women in an array of dresses, matching heels and hats. Elders like my granny, often in all white, with white gloves. I remember squeezing my husky hams into a pair of white pantyhose, shimmying into a slip a little too tight that set my prepubescent belly taut as a trampoline. And a starched, age-appropriate dress on top of all of that. Patent leather Mary Janes. Suffering through early morning Sunday School, two services and a full meal after church. I lived in constant fear of seams ripping, yearning to get back to their sweet buttercream-colored house with its tall, green grass, to be a tomboy again.
That’s close to regalia, I guess, and still not quite it. While I feel the connection to my ancestors, those Sundays don’t render what I mean when I think of regalia. It’s pretty clear I don’t know what I would wear to clarify my origins. But what about all the other early immigrants to these Americas? By the 19th-century, immigrants from Europe, whether they settled in the overcrowded tenements of New York or farmed the endless flatlands of the Midwest, eventually had to surrender their regalia, traditional dress, anything identifying them as other. Those who didn’t had a harder time assimilating, accent and all. Hand over the Lederhosen or forget about fitting in, Hans. Some held on, formed enclaves, isolated themselves to maintain aspects of their culture until the next generation left the farm for the big city. Many gave up birth names for ones easier for the pilgrims to say, many forgot how to speak their language, all in exchange for one, unified identity: Whiteness. I’m not shedding melanin tears for white folks and their clothes. They stole more than they lost, and not just clothes, but land and people, too. It also sheds light on those casually racist fools on “game day” and at Coachella, walking around wearing fake headdresses, feather headbands, SPF 30 as “war paint.” They think everything’s fair game. Please stop doing that, white people. Please.
I feel that as most of us are uninvited guests on this continent, voluntary or forced, we’ve adorned ourselves in approximations of clothing that once held meaning for someone. To me, this reveals the importance of the sacred regalia of the women of Laguna Pueblo, and of guarding against the fetishization of any aspect of their ceremonial clothes. It’s so easy for us to adopt the “cool” parts of culture and reject the people who created it. This is what “Americans” do: We appropriate, adopt, adapt, discard. Look at what the West has done to the kimono. According to Wikipedia, the translation of kimono is ki — to wear — and mono — thing — but I am pretty sure that before Americans in the United States started wearing it like an open-faced sandwich, the kimono had/has many more layers, ceremonial function and a meaning beyond being transformed into a mini shirt-dress to look sexy in the morning after.
The only item I can think of that we hold any mainstream reverence for is the traditional kilt. Not the adapted, hip, modernized version that practically snaps on like a clip-on tie, but the seven yards of wool a man has to stretch out on the floor, pleat by hand, lie on top of possibly naked from the waist down, before securing all of that billowing fabric with a belt and tossing the remaining warp and woof over his chiseled shoulder. Hmmmmmmm. (Fetishizing! Wrong! Calling myself in, sorry.) Anyway, I’ve noted our white majority caring about kilts more than any other traditional garment, though we all wear plaid shirts without knowing which clan we’re repping. In the 17th-century that could have gotten someone’s ass properly kicked. Maybe because of Mel Gibson’s historically inaccurate portrayal of Scotsman William Wallace and tons of white people claiming to be Scotch-Irish, especially while suddenly discussing ancestry at any given function where two or more gather. Every. Time. Some are indeed from the “Old Country,” but just saying: Some need to spit-take that DNA test to know for sure, because many just might be at least a little blackish.
Last year, during Santa Fe’s annual Entrada pageant marking the 1692 re-seizing of the Spanish provincial capital by conquistadors, activist Jennifer Marley (of San Ildefonso and Zia Pueblos) was one of eight people arrested for pushing back against this celebration of the slaughter and subjugation of Pueblo people. I watched a YouTube video of the moment of her arrest. The two officers, also people of color, forced her face-down on the hot asphalt, in her manta, shoulders and knees bare. The crowd chanted, “LET HER GO!” Her manta at that moment made visible the endurance of Pueblo culture and the power of tradition, an act of resistance worth fighting for.
Looking at the photographs of Marley’s arrest (all charges against her were dropped), I imagine some young, non-Indigenous woman wanting to adopt this off-the-shoulder “look,” combined with cowboy boots and hat. Add dangling, feather earrings festooned with LED twinkle lights. Wanting to be part of something ancient and powerful, having the feels while tripping at Burning Man as some dude does donuts around her. He’s dressed like a goddamned donut, with day-glo sprinkles and way too much icing. Or some design house coming out with its own version of the manta, with a side zipper and belt conveniently sewn in. Don’t you dare; it’s not yours. It’s not for you, not for me. Find reverence for this regalia with your eyes, without taking it to adapt as your own.