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The Woman Who Wears the Dress

More important than the dress is the woman wearing it, says local designer

While most fashion designers are dreaming up ways to make jaws drop on the runway, or studying the next big trend, San Carlos designer Selina Curley has another motive. She is trying to keep her culture alive.

Across the country, Native American traditions are burning out in the wake of modern mainstream culture. Things are no different at the San Carlos Apache Reservation, where smart phones and Facebook are as common as Sunrise Dances and prayer.

Curley had her nieces Sirianna and Marisa Shaw model some of her latest designs. Here they are on a set of stairs in Miami.  Photo by Jenn Walker
Curley had her nieces Sirianna and Marisa Shaw model some of her latest designs. Here they are on a set of stairs in Miami.  Photo by Jenn Walker

Nonetheless, Curley avoids designing modern, body-conscious clothing, regardless of how much more attention it may attract.

“I love fashion, but when I’m designing it’s not so much about the fashion show,” she says. “It’s about going back to my people.”

She opens a copy of Native Peoples Magazine and points to a model in a tight cut-out shirt.

“This is getting more attention, but it’s not what I want to do,” she says. “I’m always going to go back to something like this,” she says, pointing to a photo of one of her designs on the same page, “because it goes back to honoring and respecting the women of old, and what they stood for.”

She pulls out another photo in her portfolio. It is of one of her personal favorites from her collection—an 1880s-inspired Apache camp dress. Camp dresses are the most common traditional garb for Apache women. Typically made of cotton, they are modest and loose, covering a woman from her arms and shoulders down to her ankles.

In the midst of skinny jeans and exposed skin, Curley studies Apache women from the past—like Lozen, the Apache warrior and medicine woman, or Dahteste, wife of Chokonen chief Chihuahua and compatriot to Geronimo—and designs clothing in their image.

“These women were beautiful, these women were strong,” she says. “I’d want to have their heart, their strength.”

“When I’m reading about [Apache women who have passed], it awakens something inside of me… It makes me want to honor them in some way as a designer,” she adds.

As far as she can tell, Curley is one of the only Apache designers out there. In fact, she doesn’t know of any others.

Eighty percent of Curley’s designs are Apache, and the majority of them are camp dresses. The Apache camp dress itself was born out of convenience, she explains. After Apaches came into contact with the Mexicans and whites, and had access to cloth through trade, they opted to use light, comfortable cottons in replacement of their heavy leathers, releasing some of their burden in the summer heat.

Sirianna holds a bundle of herbs that Curley collected. The herb grows wild around San Carlos, and many Southwestern Native American tribes use it to make what is commonly called green thread tea. Photo by Jenn Walker
Sirianna holds a bundle of herbs that Curley collected. The herb grows wild around San Carlos, and many Southwestern Native American tribes use it to make what is commonly called green thread tea. Photo by Jenn Walker

Though standard runway models are tall and thin, how Curley selects a model is far more intuitive. She looks for different features and traits when deciding who will wear her designs on the runway. Choosing models is nothing new for her, she has organized many a fashion show, including shows at the University of Arizona, San Carlos Community College, and Navajo Nation. Curley almost always selects women from her community.

“I don’t pick models the way a New York fashion designer would,” she explains. “It’s not the outward appearance I’m looking at… there is an inner beauty that comes out… there is a certain life that she is living.”

“You can see it as a girl starts to live her life, a respect for themselves, for their tradition,” she continues. “The girls that I choose, that has to be inside of them.”

This year she is designing all of the dresses for Reyes Tom, the current Miss San Carlos.

Sirianna holds a bundle of herbs that Curley collected. The herb grows wild around San Carlos, and many Southwestern Native American tribes use it to make what is commonly called green thread tea. Photo by Jenn Walker
Sirianna holds a bundle of herbs that Curley collected. The herb grows wild around San Carlos, and many Southwestern Native American tribes use it to make what is commonly called green thread tea. Photo by Jenn Walker

As she buys fabric from the Valley, or from Julie’s Sewing Corner in Miami, all the while Curley imagines how Apache women used to live, and the patterns they might wear. Back then, all of an Apache’s belongings served a purpose, she says. The women wore a cape over their shoulders, or baskets, to carry things. They wore long sleeves and skirts to cover themselves, and their dress patterns were often mix-matched, made of whatever fabric was available and on-hand.

As a child, Curley remembers asking her mother, “why does Grandma have so many skirts on?”

“That’s just the way it’s always been,” was her mother’s response.

What Curley later found out, however, is that Apaches were constantly on the run, so they would layer their belongings, like skirts, on their bodies rather than carry them.

There is a beauty and grace to the women standing in those old photos, Curley says. It shows through their sense of purpose.

“When you look at them, [the patterns] seem to work together because of the attitude of the woman wearing it. She saw herself as something beautiful,” Curley says. “I want to continue this, I don’t want to forget that woman.”

Beyond honoring and preserving Apache culture, Curley seeks to pass on a similar strength and confidence to women through her work.

“Being able to get a woman to connect to who she is is so important to me,” she says. “It’s so important to teach them

to respect themselves, respect their culture, and honor themselves first, then the people around them.”

Marisa standing in an old doorway in Miami. Photo by Jenn Walker
Marisa standing in an old doorway in Miami. Photo by Jenn Walker

Through her designs, Curley has connected with indigenous women all over the country. She was recently contacted by an Apache woman in Washington state who was looking for an Apache designer to make her a camp dress.

After Curley sent out the dress, the woman wrote to her, saying, “When I put on the dress, I cried. I looked in the mirror and saw my my grandmother and my mother. I felt a connection with the people I lost. I just wanted to let you know that’s what your dress has done for me.”

Curley’s own mother was her inspiration for designing clothing, when she began making clothing for herself as a teenager. Her mother was her teacher. She made Curley her first Navajo dress, and her first Apache dress.

“Mom was the kind that was always busy with her hands, making clothing, quilts, dolls or beadwork. It was how she kept busy,” she remembers. “Part of what I learned from her is you never know what kind of gift you have inside of  you unless you try it.”

After her mother passed away, Curley realized that her mother had left her gift behind.

“She left it for us, she didn’t take it from us,” she says.

In honor of her mother, Curley’s last show was titled, “She Placed Her Hands On Mine and the Gift Was Passed On”.

Curley’s mother was a full-blood Apache from Camp Verde, and her father was full-blood Navajo from Klagetoh. Curley grew up in Superior, and for many years, she did not spend much time considering her Navajo or Apache heritage. She simply accepted it as a part of her upbringing. Now, however, her father and mother’s teachings—respect for the Earth, respect for people, and kindness—are more relevant to her work than ever.

“Whatever you know about your culture, you need to teach it to your children and the people around you,” she says.

In the same way that Curley sees beauty and grace in those old photos, it is her hope that her clothing will reflect that same beauty and grace.

“When I’m gone, I want the clothing I made to still be respected… I want that to reflect the person that I am,” Curley says.

Her hope is that someone will recognize one of her pieces and say, “I know who designed that dress… She understood who she was and where she came from.”

Selina Curley’s next fashion show will be held Nov. 2 at 6 p.m. at the Apache Gold Convention Center, where she will showcase her fall/winter line on 12 different models. Other artists will also be featured.

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About Jenn Walker

Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.

3 comments

  1. hello Selena, My name is Donna. I have been researching online any and all designers and dress makers. it is difficult to find someone who is willing to make an apache dress. MANY RESPOND WITH TOO MUCH MATERIAL. I love your story,dresses and your ability to see that modern skin tight dresses takes away from the culture and meaning of ones tribe. I have asked many who sew and they usually respond with ” why dont you wear a T dress?”, I am Jicarilla Apache and I have been dancing in the powwow circuit for over 20 years. I would feel uncomfortable to switch dresses simply because its the new fashion. my ancestors did not change because of fashion , why should I. I am excited to hear from you, I currently live in Las Vegas and would like to know if you plan on showing your designs here in this area or California. thank you for keeping the culture alive!

  2. I am interested in contacting Selena? I want to have a camp dress made. Please share my email and phone number 209 298-5177 cell. Thank you Marla

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