Are they Squaw, Patio or Fiesta Dresses?

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). While there is some debate on the term, many consider it offensive, which I can understand. Especially since the understanding is that it has no Native American root. 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:


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:


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.

23 thoughts on “Are they Squaw, Patio or Fiesta Dresses?

  1. I am part Choctaw, and yes I find the term “squaw” offensive. And yes I believe the dresses should be called something else. Many racist terms used to be used for things, I see no reason not to do better.

    My heritage is still so often belittled, made into an offensive costume, and offensive terms are still used all of the time, like redskin, squaw, etc..

    I don’t blame people that don’t know better but I do feel those who do should help to educate and stop the use of these terms.

    • This. So very much this. If you know that it’s offensive and continue to use the term, you’re perpetuating the cycle. For me, “squaw dress” rates right up there with “golliwog” items. We don’t use this term to describe items that depict Africans/African Americans because we understand the word to be incredibly racist. However, there seems to be, on a certain level, an acceptability in using words that other ethnicities call racist–squaw dress and coolie hat, for example–because we can claim “it’s vintage.”

    • I am part plains Cree, and I also find “squaw” offensive….BUT I am also a vintage lover and find that sometimes there are exceptions. I agree with the author of this blog.

      The fact is, it is now a historical term associated with this type of dress. It was simply more acceptable to be racist in the 50s. Does that mean it is okay for us to be today? No, of course not! But this is a simple case of using accurate terminology. You can’t just change history.

      I wish I could be better at using words to make a good argument here but….it’d be like calling golliwog items by another name because they are racist. They are already part of history and we can’t erase our mistakes by relabeling them. In fact maybe we should encourage keeping these kinds of things named as they are so we have to reflect on such things in societies past from time to time.

  2. There are a lot of terms widely used in the vintage and fashion community that are not really politically correct but they originated in a time when no one batted an eye at such things. As vintage bloggers, we’re teaching history as well and some terms are still widely used to describe things. The “coolie hat” for example originated from a derogatory term and although we’ve all tried to use more appropriate words to describe it, you really cant change decades of fashion history. When I first got into vintage I was looking for a pattern for a military style hat and was shocked to find that a widely used name referred to lady bits and began with a “c”! Vintage fashion is very non p.c. We all wear a lot of jackets featuring sleeping Mexican gentleman and such. I found a novelty print depicting “Gypsies” along with rude phrases. It’s just more proof that thr past wasn’t necessarily a more gentle, polite time.

    • I’d like to ask a question as non-confrontationally as possible. You say that as vintage bloggers, you teach history. Do you cover the historical and cultural implications of colonizer/colonized and so forth when using such terms when discussing your outfits?

      Again, I ask because I’m curious, not because I’m trying to a (forgive me) dick. It’s my experience that many people do not; rather they focus on the event that they wire the outfit to or where they got it from and this completely ignore all the above.

      • I know some bloggers do discuss the context in which their outfit or home decor items originated. Sometimes discussing such matters makes for a hostile environment on a blog, while many like to keep their blog upbeat and fun. Discussing the origins of something or its impact can open doors for people to be criticized and told that they are wrong, which no one really wants.

        I will say that when I was working on this post I found this blog post that discussed a bit more the origins of the dresses:

        • Haha, no you’re not being a dick at all! Yes, many of us absolutely do discuss these topics! As I mentioned in the instance of the “Coolie” hat, there was a girl last summer who posted the most awesome pictures of her collection of this style hats but she mentioned how awful the term is and how she wishes there was a better word for it, opening the discussion about the history of the hat, how it came into Western culture and the terrible name for it, mentioning that even sellers use the phrase. Like Janey said, it certainly opens us up to all kinds of remarks because people are quick to jump down our throats but when you love history and fashion, sometimes you do have to combine the two in a post, even if unpleasant . Side note- I found an interesting article about the word “squaw” here:

          • That is a very interesting article! It sounds very similar to women reclaiming the words to describe female anatomy that people use as insults. I had not found that article when doing research.

  3. Interesting post! I generally use the search term “patio” and I use patio to describe the dresses as well – and yes, mostly because of me wanting to be PC. I think if you use search term “50s” and “patio” on etsy you’d get similar results to “squaw.”

  4. I agree with Brittany and Janey. To Tina, I would say yes, when discussing our outfits, we do cover such implications. When it comes to language, while I’d hate to offend someone unintentionally, I have a huge aversion to retconning history. I’ve NEVER used the “N” word, but I would also never go through Tom Sawyer and take it out. I think we can all agree that Native Americans got screwed six ways from Sunday through no fault of their own (and deserve reparations, I’d say), but sometimes a squaw dress is just a squaw dress, you know? Because that’s what it was named. And if someone asks, I’d say “This is a squaw dress from 1955, so called because white Americans can be oblivious, ethnocentric jerks.”

  5. The term is antiquated and offensive, of course. But, Squaw Dress is the term that was given to these dresses by others a long time ago. In order to be true to it’s vintage roots, it is a Squaw Dress. If one was to create their own new dress based on the vintage look, one can call it whatever they wish. When searching for a vintage Squaw Dress, one is going to have to use the term, “squaw” or simply be out of luck.

  6. I call this type of dress a patio dress because that’s the first way I was exposed to this style. I do use “squaw dress” if I’m searching for it online because it does tend to get better search results than “patio dress” but on my blog or when talking to people, it’s patio dress. While the internet may disagree, I’ve never personally heard anyone use the term patio dress to reference a modern style dress.

  7. For me, they’re “patio dresses” every time. Part of this is because several that I’ve encountered personally have are so-and-so’s “patio fashions” on the label. Part of this is that I think that calling them “squaw dresses” is rather racist and, well, they’re not exactly inspired by authentic fashions of the original southwesterners! And “fiesta dress” has never really been on my radar, but that does seem to imply a little more Latin American flair than some of the styles. That said! I will exhaust every possible search term when it comes to trying to dig something up on Etsy… because people aren’t exactly sensible about labeling things on there! “Square dance” tends to bring up a handful of this style of garment as well.
    I do feel that the vintage community has a habit of using antiquated and often racist language because “that’s how it was” and I feel like that perpetuates these attitudes in modern life in a way that really isn’t helpful or progressive… so while it’s important to acknowledge the history behind the garments, I feel like it’s also necessary to be polite and respectful of other people who were marginalized during the eras we wear daily, especially since most of these people are still getting the short end of the stick in modern America.

  8. Interesting post. interesting comments!
    as not being a english native speaker it is hard to me to talk about political correct terms. … In a german sewing magazine from the 50s I saw dresses like these (which were quite exotic in germany back then) called ‘patio dress’. Even the english term was used.

    i just own two patio skirts – but i love them madly andIi can’t wait to wear them again in the warmer months.

  9. Being a historical costumer, even if a term is offensive, if it is the term used during the era to name a garment, it is the correct one. You are using the correct term to describe something from history. Watering things down or renaming them muddles facts. It is good to remind ourselves of wrongdoings in history, so we can learn and grow and teach ourselves as a future generation to actively think about why it was wrong, and then be more understanding. Sure it isn’t politically correct, but you, in the present, wearing one I don’t think are being so…it isn’t as if you’re running around in it whooping with a feather in your hair.
    But, if I am going to nitpick at anything, to prove your point, it would make more sense that you should reference text of the time referring to them as “squaw dresses” rather than look at what modern sellers are calling them.
    Either way, I’m a huge (albeit new) fan of your blog. I’m taking a road trip in June from San Diego up to San Francisco and I’ve been using your blog to find interesting places to go!

  10. I am glad you explained the differences in the 3 dress styles but I was shocked at your using the term Squaw. I am a 60 year old white woman and I cringed when I saw that. I do understand your dress term. Kind of a pickle though….

  11. Janey this is obviously such a controversial topic and I applaud you for addressing it here on your blog – really interesting to read people’s comments and to try and come up with a way forward with this. I think that yes, it’s perfectly ok to say that “this dress was originally called X at the time but we don’t use that term anymore”, as a sort of disclaimer, but perhaps we shouldn’t be casually be using these terms without a disclaimer? Are we going to be misconstrued? So now that I’ve read people’s comments, I probably wouldn’t ever put “X dress” on my blog without some kind of “formerly known as” proviso!


  12. I am also Native American, Cherokee, though I can’t “officially” prove it.

    I agree with Justine who commented. It’s become a very specific term that there’s really no replacement for. If we were really trying to clean out our language of all possibly insulting references, we wouldn’t use phrases like “kimono sleeve,” “bolero,” “gauchos,” “kaftan,” “turban,” or “Turkish/harem pants” for anything other than their actual items. The fact is that language evolves and changes. It crosses cultures and takes on new meanings.

    That being said, if people do find it offensive, I think it would be a good idea to partner with them to try to come up with a new term, though it’ll probably be likely that “squaw dress” will never really go away. However, new terms have to start somewhere! If people don’t have alternative suggestions though, I don’t know that change can happen very easily. It leaves a language gap with no solution.

    • Ooo! So this is why the term is weird to me. Sorry for jumping on your comment, but! Kimono, bolero, turban, and kaftan refer to a type of garment. Just because they’re words and styles from other cultures, we use the proper names for them. Gauchos, Turkish, and Squaw refer to groups of people. (Harem is a whole different category that I don’t have the knowledge to address.) Cursory googling shows that Gauchos do in fact wear loose pants, Turkish people do have a traditional style of very voluminous trousers. However, the group of indigenous women to whom the word “squaw” belongs (Algonquin/Algonkian, I believe. It looks like it’s originally a pidgin English version of a native word) do not live in the Southwest and do not dress in a fashion that remotely resembles these colorful ’50s dresses. So it’s clear that the nomenclature derives from what was at the time a sort of racial slur for all Native American women without distinction. (I feel like this would be similar to calling a kimono sleeve a “Coolie sleeve” or a “Chink sleeve”: a slur for a group of people who may or may not be the owners of the style) And since we know there are other terms that were used in the era to describe the garment (and ditto what Lisette says about most common historical terms being the best guide) it’s probably important consider that historical baggage and perhaps see if there is an equally accurate word to use to describe the fashion. Or, at least, to include some sort of historical disclaimer whenever you use the term as those posts will probably pop up in Google for people who are not regular readers of your lovely blog.

      • We do use words like gauchos and Turkish pants, but they don’t actually refer to the garments these people wear, much like a “squaw dress.” They vaguely resemble the clothing of other places, like a squaw dress often borrows from Native American design motifs, though the shape itself really doesn’t look like anything Native Americans have worn. Just like the dress, you can’t say that the stretchy thin gauchos ladies wear actually look like the pants real guacho men wear, and the same for Turkish pants. I think we have just borrowed those terms because they resemble something in another culture that we didn’t have a word for, not because the garments are supposed to represent the people of that culture or their clothing. It’s the same for how the word “kimono” is being used now (things with big sleeves are all kimonos, apparently…?).
        Granted, “squaw” can be offensive to people, and while I think Native Americans have bigger fish to fry than the name of a vintage style of dress (the “Redskins” team name, for example), I’m glad at least people are aware the word can be hurtful to some.

  13. Janey, Thanks so much for following up my original comment with this blog post. It has been a pleasure to see such thoughtful consideration and conversation of potentially offensive terms that could and are used in the vintage loving world of ours. I have learned a lot myself from the variety of comments and am grateful we have such a great place to voice our thoughts and ideas. Thank you for putting it out there !

  14. I can see both sides of the coin here big time and as such, I’ve usually refrained from using that term myself on my blog or in comments I’ve left elsewhere out of respect for those who are offended by it in this (or any) context, but as it is so ingrained in the lexicon of vintage fashion, I doubt it will be going anywhere anytime soon in general. I’ve taken to using the term patio dress or set instead, but again, as your images and searches highlight, this doesn’t always lead to what one may be searching for. It’s a sticky situation for sure and one that I admire you for bringing up and starting a serious conversation on – we need more deep, thought provoking posts like this in our realm.

    ♥ Jessica

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