A Dress with Three Names

August 2020 Update: This post has been in the back of my mind for sometime, however, recently it has been brought up again within the vintage community, so it is time to formally give an update. Since initially publishing this post, I have learned a great deal, and that the term “squaw” is not just “hurtful and “insulting” as I initially wrote, it is in fact a racial slur. It was a mistake for me to ever consider defending the use of this term. In the future, this style of dress, set, and skirt, will no longer be referred to with that name, and I have made alterations to previous posts as well, choosing the term “Patio” dress/set to describe these garments. However I am leaving this post up as I originally typed it as a teaching tool, instead of just deleting it and acting like it never happened, because I want to showcase that we all make mistakes, should continue to strive to learn and become better people, admit when we have done harm, and work to correct ourselves. I want to apologize to those who I have hurt by previously using and defending the term. Today, I would encourage anyone who sells these types of garments, and fellow vintage enthusiasts to no longer use the term. Using the term normalizes and shows acceptance of a derogatory term.

I have also since learned that these garments were initially designed by Dolores Gonzales. Originally born in Mexico in 1907, her family moved to America in 1911 due to the Mexican Revolution. She went on to become a fashion designer in Tucson, Arizona, creating this style of garment by blending Native American and Mexican styles together.

Furthermore, amid this learning, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the Navajo and Hopi Nations, and I encourage people to donate. Learn more here and donate here.

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In my last post I wore what I described as a “squaw dress” and received a comment regarding the use of that term, and how it can be hurtful and insulting, to the point where there are movements to change the names of cities, parks and natural landmarks that have the term in their name (like Squaw Valley for example). There is some debate on the term, its origins, and its level of being offensive or not. Additionally, “squaw dresses” have also been called “patio dresses” and “fiesta dresses”, or “set” is used in the place of “dress” when the garment is made up of a top and skirt. Taking a page from Emileigh of Flashback Summer and her Controversial Post series, I decided to share why I use the term “squaw” when describing these dresses and open it up for discussion.

For the most part, I consider myself to be a pretty politically correct person. And I would never refer to a Native American woman as a “squaw”. But why, when these types of dresses are known to go by other names, do I still use the term “squaw”? It’s a simple matter of that those terms can mean other types of dresses.

I chose to search Etsy (as I figured that many readers who may want something that I write about, would go there first in order to locate an item for themselves) using the three terms, with the “Vintage” filter. Now, it is true that when you search for “patio dress” or “fiesta dress” you will see “squaw” dresses, however, in searching for “patio dress” you will find multiple long, maxi style dresses, such as this one:

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When you search for “fiesta dress” you will come across dresses with a Mexican influence and often have peasant style tops with ruffles and sometimes feature embroidery, such as this dress:

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Things change a little when you search Google. When you type in “patio dress” into a Google image search, your results will pretty much be all maxi dresses.

However you will notice that Google suggests you add “vintage” to your search, where your results will differ, showcasing squaw dresses, but, for the most part, to the general public, the term “patio dress” refers to maxi style dresses.

When you type in “fiesta dress” into Google, your results will look like this:

A plethora of Mexican inspired dresses in various cuts, lengths and embellishments, with a squaw dress scattered here and there.

However, when you type “squaw dress” to Etsy you will only see the types of dresses that I wore in my last post. And when you type it into Google you will see a combination of the 50s squaw dresses along side rather horrific costumes, as the term is used throughout the costume industry.

So, yes, you will find a “squaw” dress when searching using the terms “patio” and “fiesta” however your search will also include other types of dresses as well. For me, I believe that the term “squaw dress” is the best fit for the dress in question. And I feel like part of my duty as a vintage blogger is to provide my readers with the words and phrases best suited to the garments in order to help them find a similar item if desired.

Do you have one of these dresses? Is there a term you prefer to use over another? Have you run into the problems I have described in searching for one of these dresses? Do you think it is wrong to use them term “squaw” when describing these types of dresses? Do you think there should be a movement to change the name of the dresses? And feel free to share any other thoughts you have on the matter.

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