Nuevo Culture

My Mom Almost Exclusively Wears Black. When She Doesn’t, It Means Something

Rick Owens, fashion’s dark knight, would love my mom. Or rather, he would enjoy her thoroughly colorless wardrobe. For as long as I can ever remember, my mom has always worn head-to-toe black. It’s a bit of a running joke in our family; we often call her Morticia Addams. She owns countless black tops that are all the same, yet “different,” in her eyes—meaning there are extremely subtle variations of necklines, fabrics, and embellishments that you’d need a magnifying glass to tell apart.

Whenever I’m at my parents’ house and I’m upstairs near her bedroom, she will scream out from the living room downstairs, “Can you bring my black top down?” as though I will know which of her 100 black tops she is referring to. On more than one occasion, she has even left the house in mismatched shoes, not being able to differentiate between her many black patent flats.

I often ask my mom why she doesn’t experiment more with color in her wardrobe, and she says she simply feels way too cartoony in a busy print or bright color. According to her, all-black outfits require “little to no thought” when getting dressed every morning. They’re a shortcut to looking instantly polished. Even I find myself gravitating towards all black, influenced by her easy approach.

Avoiding high-octane colors, however, is totally at odds with our cultural roots. We are Indigenous, and our Ojibwe tribe is known for its vibrant beadwork and colorful floral prints. Our Bandolier bags are famous—large, heavily beaded pouch bags with a slit at the top. We also specialize in jingle dresses, a powwow dancer’s garment adorned with silver or copper cones, as well as ribbon skirts and shirts, special-occasion pieces where each colored ribbon signifies something personal to the wearer.

You wouldn’t know it from my mother’s wardrobe, but we are, in fact, one of the early masters of color! Sometimes, she will channel this energy by adding a bright floral scarf by Jamie Okuma, or by wearing a bright pink lip color (her signature shade is Nars’s Schiap). But in her day-to-day style, she would rather be caught dead than wear a busy, multicolor dress like many of our ancestors did.

But there are some occasions that warrant exuberant color. Every summer, our community dancers—including jingle dress dancers, hoop dancers, and fancy dancers—gather on our traditional territory in their finest regalia and dance in the powwow circle to the beat of the drum. The event revolves around dancing, but it also doubles as a fashion show. The regalia is often made from scratch, a chance to show off your cultural couture. My sister is a jingle dress dancer, and to watch her, my mom will transform herself, shedding her black clothes in favor of a multicolor ribbon skirt, of which she owns many.

My favorite is one that two of my cousins made. It has a multicolor array of yellow, orange, and red ribbons standing out against the red printed backdrop. Sometimes, she will even wear a beaded buckskin bag with it that my sister made. Decked out in her look, she certainly blends into her surroundings at the powwow, where exquisite craftsmanship and color is everywhere. Seeing my mom in a colorful ensemble is always a shock to the senses, but it makes total sense. “Be proud of who you are,” she’ll always tell me. I’ve grown to love how she keeps her ribbon skirts reserved for special occasions. Her dramatic switch-up from all black into her colorful regalia always causes you to focus in on all of its beautiful details just that much more, as though she deliberately holds back in her day-to-day wardrobe to make you notice it more when she does dress up.

Of course, outside of special events or ceremonies, my mom always ends up retiring her ribbon skirt and going back to black—cue that AC/DC song—and that certainly won’t be changing anytime soon. In fact, as I was writing this essay, my mother realized a top that she was wearing was navy, not black, and she just immediately changed. But when she does embrace color next, whenever that will be, I know that it will result in yet another striking display of cultural pride. That’s always worth going against your signature style for.