Powwow Fashion: A Dancer’s Regalia

Stanford Powwow

On Monday, May 4th, the Annual Met Gala was held in New York City and the world saw a plethora of polished suits and outrageous gowns (or lack thereof – I’m looking at you Beyoncé).  But this weekend, Stanford students and those attending the 44th Annual Stanford Powwow will see completely new, but equally as stunning outfits as those seen on the red carpet.  The outfits worn by powwow dancers – also known as regalia – are one of the most important elements of powwows.  From the rich colors and tassels, to feathers and bustles, to jingle dresses and intricate beadwork, powwow regalia is bold, beautiful and often a signifier of the different dances performed.

To learn more about powwow regalia, I consulted Stanford student and powwow dancer Lena Wright.  She told me about the importance of regalia to a dancer because, often, a dancer’s regalia is created by hand by the dancer or a family member, and sometimes regalia is passed through families.  According to Lena, when one dances, he or she should have a positive mindset and good feelings because these feelings become “a part of the outfit and dance.”  Lena’s regalia is more than a costume or outfit–it is the feeling and the heritage of a person when they dance.

Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Lena and I also discussed how regalia is worn in accordance to the type of dance (based on style and region) being performed and the gender of the dancer.  This year’s Stanford Powwow will include the categories Men’s Northern and Southern traditional, grass, and fancy dancing and Women’s Northern and Southern traditional, jingle and fancy dancing. Most male dancers wear pants or shorts, sometimes with or without a shirt and/or chest plate, and with an apron, jewelry and sometimes feather fans.  Women wear dresses or shirts and skirts, with jewelry and accessories, such as shawls, purses or feather fans.

male dancer red and yellow

According to Lena, the biggest differences among the regalia is how it is designed in consideration of the actual dancing.  For example, because men’s grass dancing has a lot of shoulder movements, grass dancers usually don’t wear large bustles on their backs, but rather have a lot of tassels and ribbons attached to their ensemble.  For women, a defining factor in jingle dancing regalia is the actual jingles on the dress that make noise when the dancer moves.  These dances also don’t have as much spinning as women’s fancy dancing, in which case neon-colored, tasseled shawls would be spread when the dancer spins to show off the shawl.  For both men and women, dancers tend to wear more natural colors when they are dancing traditional styles as opposed to the brighter, flashier colors of fancy, grass and jingle dancing.

Credit: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

As the powwow dancing styles have changed and there have been introductions to new materials, powwow regalia has evolved.  There are subtle trends, such as women’s purses (originally made of cloth fabric) now being made out of leather. While it might not be the extravagant designer gowns seen on the Met Gala red carpet, powwow regalia is beautiful, elaborate and changes.  I invite you to go to the Stanford Powwow this weekend and see for yourself the intricacy and splendor of the different dances, dancers and regalia.

All images courtesy of Stanford SALLIE database.

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