Considering how quickly Inuit lives, culture and material culture have changed in the last 100+ years, what could our fashion and material culture look like going forward? In order to think of our future, we must also look to our past.
Studying Inuvialuit history, I learned we were very rapidly colonized, in part due to our relatively easily accessible location from the South. Those who survived disease and flu epidemics were quick to adapt to new food, tools, materials, social structures and belief systems with the arrival of whalers, advance of the fur trade and missionaries becoming a permanent presence amongst our people. With that came substitutions for our traditional materials. Instead of various shades and types of fur, ptarmigan eyebrows, bone amulets, red clay or willow bark to create our designs and colours, we began to see a variety of bright, bold colours in the form of melton, duffle, calico fabrics, ric rac, bias tape and embroidery floss.
These new materials quickly became part of our traditional clothing, and well as more demure styles like long, flowy parkas—known as Mother Hubbard parkas—complete with ruffles ajd dramatic layers of bias tape (today known as delta braid), all replacing our full caribou and skin garments. One thing that hasn’t changed is our amaruq, or sunburst fur ruff, made of amaruq (wolf) and qavvik (wolverine).
Taalrumiq Untitled Digital collage (2023)© the artist
The iconic sunburst fur ruff’s design, function and beauty has not changed since ingilraan (time immemorial). It is a brilliantly breathtaking and ingenious Inuit design. While in previous generations every single woman would have the knowledge and experience to create these essential fur ruffs, today in our region not many of us have had opportunities to create one. We must document and practice our traditional knowledge on this important piece of material culture.
In the future, as the Earth warms to a point where a big fur ruff may not be necessary for cold Arctic winds, perhaps we can use it in other ways. We have seen it as a fashion collar but how about as shoulder and hip accents on a couture gown? As wings? A halo? Surely by then we'll see (more) Inuit attending big ceremonies like the Nobel prize ceremony, the Oscars and other major events and will need something fabulous to wear by Inuit designers.
Taalrumiq Red sealskin and taffeta gown with Amaruq sunburst detail (2023)© the artist
Living in the now
Today Inuit voices, experiences and knowledge are finally being valued. We’re seeing Inuit fashion on the runways, and not only traditional clothes and designs but also couture and avant-garde fashion art. What exciting times! We have excellent representation and it’s only going to grow as more designers make their mark and share their passions and skills with the world. You could say we are already living in the future.
We’re seeing traditional design elements used in contemporary ways with new materials and techniques previously not available to us. I wonder what our grandmothers and ancestors would think to see how quickly our sewing, fashion and material culture have evolved! I often consider what my very traditional Naanak and my great naanak (also my atiq or namesake) would think of my work that is inspired by them. As contemporary Inuit designers, our ancestral skills and blood memory are active and alive in both traditional and new, even non-practical ways because we have the artistic creativity, space and freedom to do so.
Taalrumiq Sealskin vest, corset and chaps (2023)© the artist
Imagining the future
This project was a learning experience. I had a difficult time envisioning what the future could be. With climate change and the decline of the global fur trade, will there be a demand and need for fur? Will there be any fur-bearing animals left? Will plastic fibres and fabrics replace what Inuit have always known and used?
It’s not always easy to take what I see in my mind and put it onto paper. My 10-year-old daughter offered to help by re-sketching some of my images digitally (and subsequently informed me she charges $20 per sketch!). It was a great example of how adaptable Inuit are, and still using our traditional values of helping each other but also valuing our time and skills. As I continue to reclaim my own identity and ancestral skills, I am learning to be free to create without worry, without limits and have space to envision broader possibilities of Inuit fashion—some of which you see below.
Taalrumiq and Igluuq Olivia King Dress made of bamboo fabric with a sealskin bodice© the artists
For this dress I imagine a luxurious bamboo fabric with sealskin bodice, waistband and fox-fur trim. Sustainable natural materials from various parts of the world come together to create a beautiful gown that could be an heirloom piece to pass down through generations. Eventually at the end of this gown’s lifecycle it would biodegrade back into the earth.
As the world continues to connect online and more Inuit have multicultural relationships and families, surely we will see influences and combinations of other cultural designs with our own. We may see reclaiming of other traditional materials like willow and grass, or re-imagining our traditional materials to include sustainable materials from around the globe.
Taalrumiq and Igluuq Olivia King Sealskin pants and hoodie© the artists
Traditional materials with contemporary treatments like dyed bright colours and alternative prints offer a fun play on traditional clothes. This full sealskin look is fitted, casual like a sweatsuit, and references our inherent connection to nature with a rainbow feature that is bold, bright and absolutely luxurious. Never mind a polyester crushed-velvet suit, I want a sealskin sweatsuit! However, considering environmental impacts, we may see a shift over time to go back to more earth-friendly methods such as using natural dyes and manipulating the pelts in ways to enhance natural colours and features like rings or spots.
Taalrumiq Tech goggles© the artist
For Inuit hunters who prefer to stay more on the traditional side, I imagine snow goggles lined with sheepskin and edged in fur, but integrated with a GPS system for real-time tracking, communication, social media live capabilities, ice conditions monitoring—something like Iron Man’s mask but Inuit style.
Content Note: Video contains flashing images
As we move in the future, I think Inuit fashion will continue to combine design and function, like our traditional caribou, seal and polar-bear mittens; some were double thumbed and lined with fur—always a cool design. But we can also design with beauty and still make statements—more avant-garde or fashion-art pieces that tell a story, like these fingerless sealskin gloves with fringe, leather, cubic zirconia gems and metal spikes. Maybe not necessarily practical, but definitely Inuit in design and material!
Connecting past to present and beyond
It’s hard to imagine that we can further improve what nature has given us: our existing ingenious solutions to life’s challenges and our innate ability to adapt. Our traditional materials—qiviut, sealskin, caribou fur, wolf, beaver, fox, squirrel, bird, wolverine, bear, smoked hides, whale skin, fish walrus or seal intestines—are all bountiful in nature, all used with respect so that we may live. Even if we created a human-made material that is near perfect, I believe we could never let fur fade away as we know that it’s sustainable, ethical and much better for the environment than unnatural fibres.
I hope our future generations live in a time when they don’t have to do the background work to explain, educate and convince people why fur is a necessary part of Inuit culture. A time when our designs and art practices are embraced as they are.
While we’re still working to reclaim our culture and hope to never again experience such great losses, this project has really made me think of my own practice regarding future generations. What am I saying? What story am I telling? What can future generations learn from the work present-day designers, including myself, are putting out?
We are ever growing, changing, adapting and evolving. In the span of a few generations, we went from full-fur clothing to not being allowed to be ourselves, to reclaiming our identities, culture and way of being. While my grandmother worked with seal and various furs all her life, I didn’t have the same experience, and only began sewing with sealskin as an adult, when I finally could afford to. Now, I’m using fashion to share our stories and history, preserve culture and express creativity that is influenced by our traditional designs while also looking to the future.
Taalrumiq is an Inuvialuk and Gwich’in artist, fashion designer, cultural educator and digital content creator from Tuktuuyaqtuuq, Inuvialuit Settlement Region. Using the same traditional materials as her ancestors and in her signature bold style she combines art, fashion and storytelling. She advocates for using sealskin and fur, demonstrating functionality, sustainability and beauty of natural materials.
This project was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts.