Skip Navigation
Oklahoma State University

The official magazine of Oklahoma State University

(Re)Birth: A Fashion Show

Design as an expression of sovereign tribal culture features collection inspired by Native Americans

By Elizabeth Keys, STATE Magazine Editor

Leslie A. Deer's apparel designs are influenced by the spirals and abstract florals of her ancestors. She is reaching back to her native Southeastern roots, reclaiming designs and using them in a contemporary way. (PHOTOS / GARY LAWSON)

     Students from Dr. Mary Ruppert-Stroescu’s advanced apparel design class at Oklahoma State University created a collection inspired by “From the Belly of Our Being: art by and about Native creation,” an exhibition featured at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. The Center for Sovereign Nations, under the direction of Elizabeth Payne, hosted the fashion show in collaboration with the Sovereignty Speaks® series.

     The exhibition brought us face to face with indigenous female-centered creation stories. Curator heather ahtone says the artists “explored the ideals of feminine behavior and gendered roles — the ability to be both delicate and gentle, while also being a force that is powerful and bold. These narratives often teach that the Earth is our mother and all things that come from the Earth are given to nourish and provide for the people as a mother cares for her children.”

     The advanced apparel design class was challenged to look for inspiration for their senior collection in the Native American culture. To generate ideas, a group of students from the OSU Native American Student Association from the Cherokee, Pawnee and Choctaw tribes gave a presentation about their traditional clothing and its meaning.

     “The collection is centered in North American indigenous peoples who helped craft the world around us,” Ruppert-Stroescu says.

     Native Americans’ deeply-held convictions connecting them with nature inspired a dedication to sustainability and symbolism. To integrate sustainability, the fabric utilized in all the designs is recycled or reused through dyeing and felting.

(Re)Birth: A Fashion Show featured colors inspired from the Earth. Inspirations were drawn from a matriarchal theme. Integrating the concept of sustainability was a key factor in creating the senior collection.

      Claire Kennedy donated all the fabric.

      “In homage to additional elements of the indigenous culture, the students decided to incorporate the matriarchal society structure,” Ruppert-Stroescu says. “They interpreted matriarchy as a bold, driven, independent woman who facilitates equality in society through her leadership.”

     Models ranging in age from 6 to 60 years old represented a matriarch at various times in her life. Many of the garments incorporated the shape of the triangle, whether in seaming or silhouette, to symbolize the female. Each garment continued the matriarchal theme by reflecting the group’s collective vision of how a strong woman in the various age groups would dress.

     “I enjoyed this group design project. It was good to collaborate and work with my friends,” says senior Sydney McAleb of Dallas who wants to learn more about fair trade and the logistics of law in apparel production after graduation. “I came to OSU to study because the program is nationally ranked.”

     Apparel Design and Production at OSU is one of only 13 apparel programs in North America to receive the American Apparel and Footwear Association approval, which assures that the curriculum and facilities have met rigorous industry standards.

     Senior Chandler Craven of Springfield, Missouri, says she researched programs all over the country before enrolling at OSU. After graduation, she is moving to New York City to work in the corporate office of Ulla Johnson.

     Seniors Hannah Baker and Kara Rainey of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Hannah Haines of Stroud, Oklahoma; and Akhilaa Akurathi of Visakhapatnam, India, worked on the collection, too.

The OSU Museum of Art featured an exhibition "From the Belly of Our Being: art by and about Native creation." 

     Alumna Leslie Deer came to class and shared her perspectives with the graduating seniors.

     As a 5-year-old, Deer’s mother was sent to an American Indian boarding school by the United States government until she was 20 years old and placed in an urban California relocation program to assimilate. However, “Indians found Indians from all over the country,” Deer says.

     Her mother delivered her in Oakland, California, in the 1960s. Deer grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area until the age of 18, when she moved to Oklahoma. Throughout her childhood, Deer’s family was active in the indigenous community and participated in several historical events including the Occupation of Alcatraz, the Longest Walk, and the first two 500 Mile Runs. She also danced at intertribal powwows.      

     “There were lots of different tribes in the Bay Area,” Deer says. 

     It was her love of dancing and a 12-year run with the American Indian Dance Theatre that led to her current profession. Deer is an apparel designer and artist who began her career by making her own dance regalia out of necessity while on tour. As her love for creating apparel grew, so did her clientele, and she decided to pursue a degree in apparel design to strengthen her skills. She earned a bachelor’s degree in apparel design and production at OSU in 2015.

     Although Deer is a citizen of the Muscogee (Mvskoke) Creek Nation, she was introduced to traditional applique ribbonwork art over 20 years ago by two Sac & Fox women in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Her work is influenced by the motifs of her Mvskoke people and their ancestors, the Moundbuilders. She creates classic looks infused with bright color combinations and curvilinear lines. Deer prefers to use natural fibers and strives to be as sustainable as possible by producing limited editions of her garments and maximizing use of fabric scraps. She describes her garments as storytellers and envisions each piece being handed down in families, and she wonders, “Maybe I’m here as a placeholder to keep these things alive until the next generation.” 

Published in STATE Magazine, Volume 12, Number 3, Spring 2017 by STATE Editor Elizabeth Keys

Uploaded May 15, 2017

More stories like this are available for members of the OSU Alumni Association. STATE magazine is a benefit of membership in the OSU Alumni Association. To join or update your membership go to or call 405-744-5368.

Watch a video of the fashion show at

See more photos in the picture gallery: