Native American Art Magazine|April - May 2020

Crafted for special ceremonies among the Diné people, dress panels are more than works of art, they’re a lasting part of material culture.
Alyssa M. Tidwell

Two separately woven dress panels—mirror images of one another—are joined together at the sides, leaving room for the arms to come through, then held together with a woven sash. This is the traditional two-piece Navajo women’s dress, called biil. These expertly crafted textiles feature the classic designs of Navajo (Diné) basketry, characterized with colors of indigo blue and rich reds derived from cochineal or lac, and a dark brown center. The mirrored design of the two panels makes it so that when the garment is worn, the same design is displayed on either side. This style of Navajo dress signifies something special—they are one of the many threads in an illustrious tapestry of history, culture, and tradition for the Diné, meaning “The People” in the Navajo language.

Four authentic Navajo dress panels and one manta (a wider-than-long textile worn as a blanket or wraparound dress) are on exhibit at Shiprock Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, until spring of this year. The panels all span from the 1850s to 1860s, around the time New Mexico became a United States territory. According to the gallery, “They represent some of the earliest examples of Navajo weaving that the gallery has had on display...The simplicity of design with only two panels of horizontal banding helps to highlight the fineness of the weaving. Because the weavers were making these for themselves to wear, they really spent the time to make them as fine as possible.”


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April - May 2020