The Uniting Power of Cultural Fashion

I was invited to speak at the Arctic Encounter Symposium on Apri 20th. This was an event that brought together Senators and Prime Ministers from around the Arctic to discuss issues that pertained to their shared region. I was in attendance to give a speech about cultural fashion and then introduce the first cultural fashion show that the 5 year old symposium has ever had. In the time preparing my speech, I reflected on the positive affects that the Killerwhale gown had when I wore it at Miss USA 2017. I then tied that into how cross-cultural exchange through fashion can help strengthen ties between countries that are striving to work together such as those that were present to discuss the future of the Arctic. Below is the speech I wrote and presented:

Fashion is a vehicle for community and unity. Now more than ever we live in an increasingly globalized world in which many people are of mixed heritage. My mixed heritage is of Eastern European decent on my mom’s side and Tlingit and Norwegian descent on my dad’s side. I share this because this symposium is about bringing diverse people together from all around the world to work together in the betterment of the future of the Arctic. The only way that we will move forward successfully is if we all work together. In many ways, fashion can be a connector and a way to express the power and beauty of culture.

As Miss Alaska USA I had a platform and I chose to use it to make a statement about the importance of embracing our culture and heritage. I worked with a fellow tribal member, Preston Singletary, a renowned Northwest Coast Formline designer and glass artist, to create a Killerwhale design that would embellish the robe that I wore over my Miss USA gown designed by Joey Galon Atelier. The crystallized Killerwhales, which paid homage to my clan crest and Tlingit Heritage, made a strong statement about the importance of showing pride in our culture and heritage. Also, it communicated the importance of representation of our people and our culture in the media and even in the unlikely venue of a nationally televised pageant.

The Killerwhale Miss USA gown was well received by the pageant community and judges. Viewers from the state of Alaska were very engaged, as the Miss USA 2017 pageant was one of the most widely streamed events of the year. In addition, the Indigenous community around the Nation embraced this rare showing of their culture in mainstream media with many comments and people reaching out saying how much it meant to them to see their culture represented. This shows how much cultural representation matters.

The images and videos of the gown went viral on Facebook and the gown made front page of the Juneau Empire. It even resulted in a headline written boldly in Tlingit, which was the first time a headline in Juneau had been written in Tlingit. It said Tlingit aya xat.

This example just goes to show that fashion...especially cultural fashion...can make a notable impact and communicate a strong message about who we are and bring people together.

That brings us to tonight’s festivities. 

Tonight several of us will be walking in the Arctic cultural fashion show. Rachel Kallender, the founder and director of the Arctic Encounter Symposium, had the vision of bringing together Arctic Cultural Designers to show how effectively our cultural heritage is being integrated into clothing designs as a means to show pride in who we are and where we come from. 

I think I can speak for many of us involved in the show tonight that we would like to see cultural attire continue to grow in popularity. The reason for that is because we believe it’s a powerful way to show connection to and pride in our heritage. It’s also a great example to our youth to show them that our culture is not something that is reserved for the museums and archives instead it is living and breathing. Through wearing and showcasing cultural fashions, we are paying homage to our ancestors, while adapting and carrying it forward with us into the future.

Being inspired by our traditional regalia and cultural clothing, while also adapting to our world and modern styles of dress, these fashions can be brought into any venue. Even a national pageant, or a symposium.

Beyond my experience as Miss Alaska USA and the statement I made about cultural fashion at Miss USA, Rachel also asked me to speak and provide an introduction to tonight’s cultural fashion show because we are both founders of likeminded organizations. I founded Culture Story back in 2015 with the vision of celebrating culture and identity, and focusing on it as a point of strength. Similarly, Arctic Encounter believes that by bringing cultures together from around the world, we can together be a stronger force for moving our Arctic communities forward in the future.

What the designers here tonight are communicating with their fashion designs is bigger than beautiful aesthetic (which is still cool). But more than that, fashion has the power to bring people together. And unlike many other art forms, any one can wear fashion and communicate who they are and what they care about.

Rachel asked if I would touch on the topic of fashion and cultural sensitivity and its ability it was to bring people together versus divide us.

She wanted to present the question about whether cultural sensitivity can sometimes cause us to think twice about whether or not to wear a cultural clothing item on account of not wanting to be culturally inappropriate. Is it possible that those who fight for issues can be allowed to wear the associated cultural dress? Can’t fashion be a connector versus a pain point that results in conversations about cultural appropriation and insensitivity?

At least tonight we are having designers and models from across the Arctic come together and model each other's cultural designs and fashions. This is done in a statement that unifies us and shows just how much the future of the Arctic is better off if we are all in this together and celebrate each other’s cultures and unique heritages in the process.

But also notice that presenting each other's cultural fashions is done with respect by recognizing who designed the piece and acknowledging the culture it came from. When that does not happen, that is when cultural appropriation comes into play. So as long as we are respectful by giving credit where credit is due, I believe we can wear each other's fashions and not fear that we are culturally appropriating it. Instead, it is a way of celebrating and lifting each other's cultures up. That means we must tell the “Culture Story” behind each designer and piece’s identity. In that way we are celebrating culture and identity through fashion, art and history.

Now to drive this point home about how fashion unifies people. Rachel told me this story about Prime Minister Aleqa of Greenland. Yesterday, the Prime Minister told Rachel that she wanted her to wear her traditional clothing from Greenland in this fashion show. She asked Rachel to do this as a moment of exchange and recognition for all the work Rachel and her team has done to bring about this convening. She was using fashion as a gift of recognition and connection.

This gesture brought Rachel to tears because Prime Minister Aleqa of Greenland is a mentor and idol to her. Furthermore, it felt like an even greater gesture of inclusion because it was a powerful indigenous woman telling a Caucasian woman from Cordova, Alaska that what you are doing to help the Arctic is not only okay, but it is celebrated. She was thankful to Rachel for founding this organization and bringing us all together.

I think this exchange exemplifies how our fashion choices can be a way of bringing all of us together as we work for the betterment of the same cause; the success and sustainability of the Arctic well into the future.


Thank you for reading this perspective on cultural fashion and the ability for it to bring people together.