Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Kandahar Designs

Last week we received a donation of some clothing primarily from the 1970s to the 1990s. Amongst the items was a late 1970s striped grey cotton ‘A’ line sundress with the label ‘Kandahar Designs – Boston’. A few google searches resulted in an interesting back story

In 1970 or 1971, Eli Zelkha was heading down to Florida for spring break with Archie — (his last name is never revealed), a pre-med college mate from Colgate University in upstate New York. On the trip down they talked about what they would be doing that summer. Archie had $5,000 and suggested the two go to Afghanistan to buy ‘cool stuff’ to resell. During their summer they purchased a very expensive Bengal tiger skin rug, scores of antique 19th century Afghani rifles, and 800 men’s wedding shirts from dealers in Kabul.

When their purchases arrived in the United States, the tiger skin rug was confiscated, there was no interest in the rifles from collectors, and the shirts were used, stained, and mis-sized. All they could do was try to salvage what they could from the shirts, so they dyed them to cover the stains and then consigned them through boutiques. One shop offered to share his booth at an upcoming New York sale in lieu of payment for some shirts, and the shirts were a hit. Mademoiselle magazine snapped some up for a fashion shoot, and other fashion mags and leading stores followed.

The next problem was filling orders. By 1972, Eli and Archie had moved from being importers to manufacturers when they hired tailors in Afghanistan to make the items to order. As the interest in ethnic clothing grew, especially after Yves St. Laurent’s success with ethnic-inspired collections, the two expanded the business, hiring fashion designers to remake Afghani clothes and textiles into Western styles, like sundresses.

The venture was a huge success until 1979 when the Iranian revolution lead to Russia invading Afghanistan. Even though ethnic fashions were already cooling in popularity, Eli bought out Hindu Kush, a competitor clothing business that sourced similar clothes. He then attempted to shift production to different styles of clothing, but the business failed.

There is a great article that tells the story in more detail, as well as the video below, with Eli Zelhka telling his story first hand. BTW, the owner of Hindu Kush was Tom Freston who went on to found MTV in 1981, and Eli Zelhka went on to head the team that invented Ambient Intelligence in 1998.

Kuspuk – The Arctic Muumuu

When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 the Western Arctic opened up for contact and trade. Christian missions were soon bringing salvation and modesty to the locals, who reportedly walked about dressed in either the skins of animals, or nothing at all (as this 1860 etching of the interior of an Eskimo dwelling depicts.)

The wrapper, a style of house dress made of printed cotton, usually with a flounced hemline and optional belt, were being mass produced by the 1890s. Missionaries gave Native women these unfitted frocks to cover their nakedness and they became popular throughout the South Pacific where the style was called a holoku or muumuu.
In Alaska, wrappers were worn as indoor dresses, but the brightly coloured cotton prints were also worn outdoors as covers over fur parkas. The style became a part of the traditional Alaskan Eskimo costume and slowly morphed over the years to include short versions with hoods and pockets.

Basotho Heritage Blankets

Blankets featured in the film Black Panther were manufactured in Randfontein, a small mining town in South Africa by a company called Aranda Textile Mills. The company was started by Dr. Magni, an Italian who immigrated to South Africa with his two brothers after World War II to rebuild their family’s weaving industry that had been destroyed in Prato during the war. The first blankets were produced in 1953. In the 1980s, the Basotho heritage style blankets, which are worn every day in the colder higher regions, were designed by two Englishmen, R.D. Shrubsole and Colin Tunnington, who were experts in Basotho culture. The stripe, which was originally a weaving error, has become a trademark of the blankets. The stripe is worn vertically to denote growth. The blankets began to be sold in Johannesburg about 30 years ago with a branch store in Ficksburg, on the border of Lesotho.

Is There a Museum of Folk?

I don’t know of a museum that specializes in European folk dress – those strange costumes worn for specific carnivals or traditional ceremonies. I am sure European regional museums collect local garments, but wouldn’t it be great to see these pulled together into one spectacular exhibition and catalogue! I don’t even know of any good book that covers this information…

Gilles costume from Carnival of Binche, Belgium – a local festival held in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday where men and boys dressed like the two pictured here, throw oranges to (and at) spectators.


Jester festival commemorating the battle of Murten in 1476 when the Thun army captured Charles the Bold’s court jester. The jester, called Fulehung, chases crowds through the streets of Thun, Switzerland and hands out candy to kids.

Paper Fashions for the Afterlife

Originally a Taoist ritual for ancestor worship, the burning of joss paper money (aka ghost money) honoured the dead on special holidays and occasions. The ritual varies amongst Taoist believers but has the same purpose of sending good things to those in the afterlife. In more recent years paper mache goods including clothes, shoes, and off-brand luxury goods have been made for the ceremony.


Colourizing the past

This image was recently posted on a site that showed various ethnographic costumes colourized. Unfortunately, not all the colours were correct. However a woman, Sari de Groot, who viewed the images and knows quite a bit about this area’s folk dress added some interesting info. I am paraphrasing her comments: “This Dutch woman is from Zuid Beverland, Zeeland. She is protestant, married, and has at least one child. The colouring of the 2 “stukken” (pins) is wrong, they are always gold. She wears squares on the side of the bonnet. When she is an unmarried girl, she has a big one on the right, when she married but has with no children then she has a big one the left, and when she has a child she has big ones on both sides. The closing locket is at the back of the bloodcoral necklace also means she is married. When she is a widow she will wear the locket in the front.

To see other colourized versions: click here.

Oldest extant clothing…

The Squaw Dress

The term ‘Squaw dress’ is used to describe a two-piece dress with an aesthetic borrowed from the Southwest Apache, Navajo and Pueblo Native cultures that stretch between Tucson, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Similar styles known as Fiesta dresses borrowed styling from further south, in Mexico. The rickrack trimmed tiered skirt style of a squaw dress was also known as a “broomstick skirt,” because the fabric was wrapped around a broomstick to create creases.

The style was originally a regional style of dress that became defined in the late 1940s, but as they were sold through department stores across the U.S. the style exploded in popularity in the 1950s, only losing popularity when the fashion for full skirts fell from favour in the mid 1960s. Some of the earliest makers of these dresses include Tucson’s Dolores Gonzales, Cele Peterson, George Fine, and Lloyd Kiva New, but it was Albuquerque’s Jeanette Pave that was probably the most prolific manufacturer. Polish born Henry Pave and his wife Jeanette opened a store in Albuquerque in 1945. Between 1950 and 1968 Jeanette manufactured and distributed a line of squaw dresses sold under the label ‘Jeanette’s Originals’.

The term ‘squaw dress’ makes some people shudder at the thought of its political incorrectness, however, there has been no conclusive word from the Native community as to whether the term is considered offensive or not. Historically, the word comes from the Algonquian Native dialect and was used to simply denote female gender, the way the word ‘she’ is used in English. However, because it has also been used derisively, some indigenous women and politically correct watchdogs consider the word disrespectful. However, squaw is an acceptable word to many indigenous women when spoken with respect.

Canadian Fashion Connection – The Cowichan Sweater

Various authentic and knock-off ‘Cowichan’ sweaters, late 1970s – early 1980s

Bulky knit sweaters are unquestionably a Canadian fashion. Their creation has been the result of a fusion of European and Native techniques and designs that developed over the last century. There is some confusion over what to call these bulky yarn sweaters that include: ‘Indian’, ‘Cowichan’, ‘Curling’, ‘Buffalo’, ‘Mary Maxim’, ‘Siwash’, and even ‘Big Lebowski’. However, there is only one name for the original bulky yarn sweater, and that is ‘Cowichan’.

Coast Salish First Nations traditionally live on the west coast straddling the present-day border between Canada and the United States, with the Cowichan Valley, southern tip of Vancouver Island, and the gulf islands at the centre of this cultural region.

Earliest known photo of a Cowichan Native wearing a sweater, 1913

Coast Salish blankets made from goat wool and dog hair were central to the pre-contact Native economy and potlach ceremony. The source of wool for Coast Salish blankets quickly changed when Europeans brought sheep into the Cowichan valley beginning in the 1840s. A Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) account from 1886 records 292 sheep were owned by the Coast Salish.

The first documented instance of Coast Salish knitting took place at the Sisters of St. Anne Roman Catholic mission which opened in 1864 in the settlement of Duncan – in the Cowichan Valley in the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island (which become a part of the province of British Columbia in 1870). Until 1904, the Sisters taught local girls and women how to knit using multiple needles (seamless or circular knitting) instead of two needles (flat knitting). Examples of socks knitted by Native women from the Cowichan band of the Coast Salish were reportedly exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

By the end of the 19th century, commercially produced blankets and the outlawing of the potlach ceremony effectively ended the Coast Salish production of woven blankets and shawls. Knitting supplanted weaving as the last examples of traditionally woven blankets date from before 1915, around the same time the first sweaters appeared.

Earliest known surviving Cowichan sweater, c. 1918

The earliest ‘Indian’ sweaters (called that because they were knit by Indians, not because they had anything identifiably Indian about them) had very little in common with today’s Cowichan sweater style. The earliest known photograph of a Cowichan sweater dates from 1913 and appears to have a cable pattern (a technique no longer used in Cowichan sweaters) but is made from a bulky hand-spun wool – a feature that remains today.

During World War 1, officers from Vancouver Island wore Cowichan made sweaters under their uniforms while stationed in Europe during winter. The earliest known surviving Cowichan sweater dates from this period and is a plain knit pullover in undyed sheep’s wool with a faint linear pattern.

Fair Isle patterned sweater by Jemina Colvin, dated 1929

Mrs. Jeremina Colvin, a Shetland Islander who settled in Cowichan Station in 1885, is sometimes attributed with introducing Fair Isle pattern knitting to the Coast Salish. A Fair Isle patterned sweater made in bulky wool by Colvin dating from 1929 is in the collection of the Cowichan Historical Museum. However, Fair Isle pattern sweaters were popular sportswear fashions in the 1920s, especially with golfers. The only difference is that the commercially made and Scottish hand-knit versions used finer wools and brighter colours, whereas Cowichan sweaters typically were made up in natural coloured bulky yarns.

Canadian Prisoner of War wearing a Cowichan sweater, early 1940s

The number of Cowichan knitters had grown by 1942 when the DIA reported that knitting in the Cowichan valley had become a viable means of bringing the Coast Salish into the mainstream economy. Most often sold through West Coast sporting goods stores for hunting and fishing wear, ‘Indian sweaters’ were recognized for their warmth, durability, and weatherproof quality for outdoor pursuits. By the late 1940s, the sweaters were becoming known outside of Vancouver Island and although everyday knitting was falling in popularity in the postwar world, because of its association with the Depression and War when hand-knit goods were an economic necessity, there remained an appreciation for hand crafted fashion items.

American reindeer pattern sweater, early 1940s

In 1951 Alma Warren, from Woodward’s department store in Edmonton Alberta, suggested to Willard McPhedrain that his Mary Maxim Company make bulky wool sweaters and suggested he look at examples made by the Cowichan band of the Coast Salish. McPhedrain hired a designer to create Mary Maxim 4-ply wool sweaters to imitate the bulky Cowichan sweaters. However, Mary Maxim  (commonly called curling sweaters at the time) did not copy Cowichan sweater construction. Mary Maxims were made from flat knitted panels sewn together with set in sleeves. Fair Isle motifs were used by Mary Maxim as well as animal and other pictorial designs that had been popular on commercially produced cardigans and pullovers since the late 1930s. A 1949 photograph of a Cowichan woman with her sweater depicting opposing reindeer, a popular motif that appeared in commercially made American sweaters from the early 1940s, is the earliest evidence of animal designs used in Cowichan sweaters. Whales, thunderbirds, and other totemic motifs began to be infused into Cowichan sweater designs during the 1950s.

Mary Maxim pattern catalogue showing Cowichan inspired patterns and other designs, mid 1950s

Cowichan woman spinning wool with a sweater showing double reindeer pattern, dated 1949

That same decade, the Canadian Indian Art and Handicraft Association, The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, as well as other organizations, brought First Nations arts and crafts to mainstream Canadian art and souvenir shops for the purpose of advancing the economic conditions of Native Canadians. This was the same period Inuit lithograph prints came onto the market.

Cowichan woman holding her sweater with Totemic and other designs, early  1950s

Although Mary Maxim sweaters were more popular in the 1950s, the demand for Cowichan sweaters was on the rise. By the mid 1960s the demand was growing quickly and wholesale prices climbed from $15.00 per sweater to $50.00 per sweater by 1970 when an estimated 10,000 sweaters were produced by about 600 Cowichan knitters that year. Despite the higher demand, wholesale prices did not increase during the 1970s or 1980s because Cowichan sweaters were now facing competition.

Queen Elizabeth being presented with two Cowichan sweaters, 1959

By 1970, Mary Maxim curling sweaters were considered kitschy, and Cowichan styles became more popular, especially with Japanese buyers. Honing in on the trend were several companies that created patterns for home knitters and used a Salish-style thick single-ply wool yarn sold under various brand names including ‘Icelandic’ and ‘White Buffalo’ brands. More competition came from hand-knit sweaters modelled after Cowichan styles that were produced with labels like “Hand Knit in Western Canada”, implying authenticity, but that were less expensive because they used a cheaper wool spun in New Zealand to imitate Salish yarn.

Terminology became blurred as ‘Cowichan’ began to be used as a generic term to describe all bulky yarn knit sweaters. The Cowichan band began legal proceedings in July 1979 to protect the Cowichan name from being used by other wool manufacturers or knitters, which they won in January 1980. Since that date, every Cowichan sweater has been given a registration number and is labelled as a genuine Cowichan product.

As commercially produced imitation sweaters continued to threaten genuine sweaters, the Cowichan Band Council produced a resolution on June 23, 1981 that listed the necessary requirements for an authentic Cowichan sweater:

  • A durable hand knit finished product made from unprocessed water repellent wool
  • Of long stranded wool spun to produce a strong yarn
  • Having geometric or animal designs on the clothing
  • Sweaters which are knit in the round producing a tubular seamless body
  • Sleeves are knitted or attached by yarn
  • Having no artificial or natural dyes

In 2011, the Government of Canada designated Coast Salish Knitters and the Cowichan Sweater as an event of national historic significance.

For More Info:

The Cowichan sweater of Vancouver Island