From the Exhibition:

An American Style: Global Sources for New York Textile and Fashion Design, 1915–1928

Between 1915 and 1928, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) collaborated with the textile and fashion industries to inspire a distinctly American style that would assert creative independence from Europe and spur domestic industry. The indigenous collections of textiles and clothing at the AMNH were promoted through lectures, contests, and an exhibition as ideal inspiration for a unique visual language. The exhibition An American Style considers these efforts in the context of contemporary anthropological practices, design theory, and the state of industrial design, and examines the roles of key figures including AMNH staff and contributing designers and manufacturers.

Home to the Nivkhi peoples, the Amur River region in the far east of Russia and northeastern China is an historical center for trade and cultural exchange.1 The Nivkhi fish-skin coat in the collection of the AMNH not only reflects the natural environment of the Amur River area but also attests for the interactions that influenced Nivkhi traditions.

The vast Amur River provided basic necessities for the region’s inhabitants including fish skins used in clothing and shelter. Typically, the skin is removed from the fish in one piece and is then dried, kneaded, and moistened in fish soup until supple, resulting in a water-repellent, durable, and lightweight material. The Nivkhi coat is made from dyed and painted salmon skin with inset, appliqué, and cut-out details as well as reindeer hair and reindeer sinew thread. In addition to fishing, the peoples of the Amur region hunted reindeer and dogs for clothing and trade.2

Although the material of the coat reflects the region’s physical surroundings, the style reveals the influence of the Nivkhi’s Chinese and Manchu neighbors. In their full cut, wrap front with angular edge, and wide borders, Amur fish-skin coats bear a striking similarity to Chinese dress. Generally undecorated on the front except for the borders, the back of a typical Amur fish-skin coat is covered with abstracted swirling patterns that recall traditional Chinese decoration. The conventionalized representations of cocks and fish appliquéd on the back of the Nivkhi coat are also common Chinese motifs.3

Initially, the movement to create a unique American design idiom drew solely from the AMNH’s collections of indigenous textiles and dress from the Americas. By 1917, at the time of America’s entry in World War I, the scope broadened to incorporate global, non-Western sources, such as Amur fish-skin coats. Designers were granted special access to the AMNH collections, where they could study the designs and techniques of indigenous crafts. J. Wise, one designer who utilized the collections as inspiration for her modern women’s and children’s wear, created an ensemble based on a Nanai fish-skin coat. The jacket had a wrap front and wide borders with swirling patterns reminiscent of typical Amur ornament as well as similar loose sleeves cut in one piece with the body. The garment was belted at the waist and paired with a matching straight skirt, creating a silhouette favored by avant-garde circles in the 1910s. A model was photographed in the AMNH wearing the J. Wise outfit with an Amur fish-skin coat folded over her arm, acknowledging a resemblance between the garments, yet suggesting possession and improvement of the indigenous example.

The Nivkhi fish-skin coat records a complex culture formed by specific environmental circumstances. The supporters of the new American aesthetic focused on the material qualities of these ethnographic objects and appropriated stylistic elements in an effort to devise a true and lasting design language suited to modern American women. Despite various efforts and a collaboration among designers, industry, and the museum, an embrace of global indigenous traditions had failed by the beginning of the 1920s to coalesce into a single unified style.

1.Lydia T. Black, “Peoples of the Amur and Maritime Regions,” in Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska, ed. William W. Fitzhugh and Aron Crowell (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 24.

2.Jill E. Oakes and Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, Spirit of Siberia: Traditional Native Life, Clothing, and Footwear (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 164–65.

3.William W. Fitzhugh, “Comparative Art of the North Pacific Rim,” in Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska, ed. William W. Fitzhugh and Aron Crowell (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 297; Berthold Laufer, The Decorative Art of the Amur Tribes, vol. 7, Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1902), 69–71.