|"I am not going to dashiki people to death," was a poignant remark I can recall
Jae Jarrell making in a long ago conversation we had about fashion and style.
She was speaking within the context of her career as a fashion artist at a time
when the changes in fashion styles in a large sector of the Black nation in
America were heavily influenced by identification with all things African,
whether abroad or in America. In the late 1960's, one could say, if you designed
a better dashiki the World would wear out a path to your door. Plenty of shops
specializing in garb based upon simple African styles (pull over shirts, or
dashikis) and wraps, opened up for an obliging market,. It could be said, in
retrospect, that the age of Superfly, bell bottom pants, vinyl coats, and platform
shoes, also ruled the day in popular fashion. For a designer like Jae, staking
out new ground while staying above the fray, with respect to fads, and surviving
as a fashion artist was a daunting challenge. She had been well into her career
for years before helping to get AFRICOBRA off the ground, having catered to a
niche market of individuals not satisfied with off the rack design, but who
preferred clothing which had a timeless, classical look.
Ever the entrerpreneur, Jae marketed her new, uniquely designed suede leather
beret in periodicals, and for a time sold exclusively via mail order. At the same
tie, she was involved along with her husband Wadsworth, in hosting meetings of
AFRICOBRA in the WJ Studio. Buying into the idea of forming a group with the
other four founders, Jae was constantly searching for a way in which she could
translate the ideas and concepts bandied about in brain storming session into
her medium of expression. She will be the first to remind anybody that the core
artistic discipline is the same for fashion artists as it is for all artists and she
was right at home in evaluating the other member's work.
Jae, unbeknownst to many, is pretty much a pioneer as a result of having to
reorient her thinking to the developing AFRICOBRA environment. Her idea of
painting on garments (wearable art) took the arts and crafts industry nearly
twenty years to develop into a craze that still enjoys widespread popularity.
Remember, T-shirt printing, with all manner of images and graphics, did not
exist in 1968. In the 1980's fabric painting became a huge fad as hobbyists
began painting on T-shirts, blouses caps, dresses, shoes, etc. Newly
manufactured acrylic paints were formulated with softening medium to make the
colors more pliant when they dried on fabric. Yet, way back in 1968 Jae had
already formulated a way to combine art and fashion when she began using her
garment as a painter used canvas to paint images on. The clothing she created,
in a word, were her canvas. If ever there was a genesis of a genre, one need only
look at some of the hip hop garb of the last two decades, and the work of Jae
Jarrell should clearly register. Her response to the group's assignment to create
a work themed the Black Family was her imposing dress, which bears the image
of parents and children embellished constructed with patches of cloth and suede.
Her woman's tweed ensemble "Revolutionary Suit" bears a faux bandolier, or
"bullet belt" made of suede with colorfully painted "coolade" colored wooden
bullets. It simulated the then universal symbol of revolution, yet it has the
timlessness which she felt was an important quality in her work. Upon seeing
the garment at the AFRICOBRA pavilion in Chicago's Black Expo in 1970, the
High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, exclaimed "I've been looking for something
like that for a long time."