Review: Dress exhibit at NMAI comes up short
"Sometimes a dress -- no matter how historically rare, culturally significant or spiritually meaningful -- is just boring. This unfortunate fact has nothing to do with the value of the garment or even its beauty, but rather the circumstances under which it is presented. And one of the surest ways to guarantee that a dress will fail to excite either the mind or heart is to put it in a museum and treat it with too much reverence.

An exhibition of even the most dazzling clothes begins to feel like drudgery when the garments are imbued with so much gravitas that they lose the vibrancy that comes from the quirks, foibles and humor of the people who wore them.

The current exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian burrows deeply into the details of Native American women's attire. But it focuses on the subtleties without clarifying the broader story.

"Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women's Dresses" examines the culture of dressmaking handed down from mother to daughter, and the importance their beading and sewing skills occupy within their community. The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 2, doesn't merely look back at artifacts, but also addresses the work of contemporary women from various tribes.

The influence of those women, who served as both contributors and consultants, is felt throughout the exhibition. (There are videos of them discussing their work.) Their sincerity leaves little room for skepticism, debate or humor. One is informed that the garments are revered as a way of connecting one generation to the next without ever learning whether that is what makes them exceptional. Is this different, for example, from the intergenerational culture of quilting?"

Get the Story:
Only Hide-Deep (The Washington Post 5/25)
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Relevant Links:
National Museum of the American Indian - http://www.nmai.si.edu

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