April 9, 2010

Designer Profile | Remonia Jacobsen

Growing up in Oklahoma, Remonia Jacobsen (Otoe/Iowa) attended several public schools as well as the Pawnee and Chilocco Indian Schools. Jacobsen started sewing at a young age, and defined herself as ‘self-taught,’ improving her skills in design over the years. One of the main vehicles for Jacobsen’s fashion design self-apprenticeship was to create her daughters’ powwow dance outfits.

After moving from Oklahoma to Colorado in the mid-1970s, Jacobsen became increasingly interested in pursuing fashion design as a career and decided to develop her own fashion business. She pursued certificates in small business development and management, and began presenting her work through fashion shows, event lectures, and television programs in the 1970s. For over two years, Jacobsen participated in a television special, on channel KKTV in Colorado Springs, devoted to broadcasting programs on Indian culture. Largely motivated by the desire to share her culture with others for educational purposes, Jacobsen built a successful company and imparted to others the dynamic nature of Indian innovation through her numerous programs and presentations.

Jacobsen was also involved in civic and Indian affairs, participating in a number of community activities. She co-founded one of the area’s Inter-tribal Indian Clubs, and served on a number of advisory councils for alcoholism, affirmative action, human relations, and Native American issues. Jacobsen was active in the powwow scene, and assisted with organizing and hosting the local powwows in Colorado. She noted that female members of her family were bestowed the honor of wearing traditional Kiowa dresses and Jicarilla Apache dresses at tribal events, even though they were Otoe/Iowa. She created these outfits, and thus became well-versed in a variety of different tribal traditional garment-making techniques and styles. She distributed her fashion designs through outlets in New York, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington state. Her clients included renowned Santa Clara potters Joseph Lonewolf and Grace Medicine Flower.

About Native fashion, Jacobsen stated, “Indian fashion is very much alive and real today. Both the Indian person and the non-Indian person are keenly aware of the Indian concepts of simplicity, durability, versatility and beauty shown in the fashion. I try to relay these concepts in the fashions I design. Using a traditional theme, I develop a fashion for today.”

Her first sentence marked Native fashion as dynamic and authentic. Perhaps responding to the trendy Natural Style of the 1970s, she connected her fashion to the then-favorable attributes of being both down-to-earth and back-to-earth. Jacobsen both played on and challenged the stereotypes of Indians as being close with nature.

The majority of Jacobsen’s garments were long loose-fitting dresses featuring Sioux, Otoe, Iowa, Seminole, Kiowa, and Pueblo designs, decorative techniques, and silhouettes. She also created a long dress with a halter top and stole embroidered with Otoe and Iowa style ribbon-work, a floor-length skirt and blouse adorned with Seminole appliqué, and a buckskin miniskirt with contemporary Kiowa leggings. She made a wedding dress and bridesmaid’s dress with designs inspired by an old photograph of her grandmother’s wedding, and incorporated traditional Otoe ribbon-work. She also created a floor-length manta-style dress with a thin strip of ribbon-work along the top, and a bikini bathing suit with wrap-around skirt decorated with Seminole-style patchwork. By the late 1970s, Gilham and Jacobsen demonstrated how Native women could take fashion in new directions, while still retaining their essential identity symbols.

Native American fashion designers in the 1970s were predominantly, if not entirely, women. These designers created appliqué dresses, ribbon shirts, and vests for Native and non-Native men and women. Gilham sold her work at professional conferences, and held community fashion shows that were made possible through the assistance of her family. Jacobsen participated in powwows and worked with advocacy groups. Being active in community organizations, the designers were aware of a new client: the active Native female advocate, which was essentially themselves.

To Jacobsen and other Native designers at this time, beauty meant wearing garments that were feminine (a dress), yet not too constricting in construction (loose-fitting), and decorated with embellishments that would relay a proud tribal or pan-Indian identity. A miniskirt made of buckskin was also an option for the younger females who wanted to wear a dress featuring the new liberating skirt length, yet would also express their Native American affiliation.

(Note: This is an excerpt from my dissertation and is copyrighted material)

(All images are scanned from a brochure featuring Jacobsen's Monkapeme Fashions, produced by Southern Plains Indian Museum and Crafts Center)