What does your outfit say?

Judith Reynolds/Special to the Herald

The “Woven to Wear” exhibit at the Center of Southwest Studies begins with a written explanation by curator Jeanne Brako and from there the clothing and images tell their own history.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

You are what you wear.

It is impossible to walk through “Woven to Wear” and not be aware of your own attire. Now on display in the main gallery at the Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College, the exhibit of Navajo and Puebloan textiles, is a splendid, first-rate museum show. Spectacular photo murals create the feel and spaciousness of the Southwestern landscape.

Mannequins stand at attention in a variety of old and relatively new Native American dress. A special display of baskets adds to the texture of the exhibition. And in the hallway, oversize photographs present images of Native American life from times long past. Overall, there is a clear sense of purpose and intelligent point of view.

Clothing speaks of identity. Clothing pronounces one’s place in a community. Clothing sets forth a cultural context that defines us all.

Those are the themes and the main reason self awareness kicks in.

Key to the exhibit is the premise that we display who we are by what we put on each day.

“The textiles we wear reveal our culture,” writes Curator Jeanne Brako in an introductory panel, “our history, and above all, our identity as individuals and members of communities.”

All of Brako’s text panels serve as succinct guides. You’ll learn about weaving and weavers in the Southwest. You’ll learn about the history and legacy of weaving traditions, the technology, the design and color.

“These are still traditions that are vibrant,” Brako said in a walk through recently. “For 2,500 years, weaving has been important in the region. This exhibit is about the legacy of Navajo and Puebloan weavers. From very early times they have produced beautiful and complex weavings known world wide.”

From the largesse of The Durango Collection which is housed at the Center, Brako carefully selected a limited number of textiles for the exhibit. A smart idea, and one that has driven the notion of showing the collection at other museums.

“From the beginning,” Brako said, “Fort Lewis College has been committed to traveling the collection. In the late 1970s, we partnered with the Avenir Museum at CSU Boulder. It was somewhat limited at the time,” but the idea of traveling shows launched.

Now, the collection can be seen in this well-focused exhibit, and as events have conspired, more of the collection is on display in Santa Fe at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. The Durango Collection, with weaving from 1860 to 1880, opened last May and continues through April 2014 at the Wheelwright.

In addition to textiles and basketry, the photography in the Center’s exhibit at FLC is worth contemplating.

“We asked John Ninneman if we could enlarge some of his photographs,” Brako said of the Canyon de Chelly images and a spectacular skyscape over the Vermillion Cliffs. One large photo of a 1918 interior by Horace S. Poley came from the Denver Public Library. And in the Center’s hallway there are more images by early Durango photographers Lisle Updike and William Pennington from what they called the Navajo Series. They can all be found in H. Jackson Clark’s book Glass Plates and Wagon Ruts.

“Clothing is common experience,” she reiterated. “That’s an important reason to show these items. It’s something we all share.”

The first time I walked through “Woven to Wear,” it was only minutes before I noted my orange cotton shirt, tan chinos and sandals. My summer uniform marks me as a middle class, Anglo Durangoan who cares about comfort. You are what you wear.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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