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Aboriginal sisters shine in culturally inspired fashion show

Alice Crewe

Coolgardie, Western Australia

Jasyliah-Mae Thomas stands backstage at the Women’s Dream Fashion Show in the Western Australian gold-mining town of Coolgardie, looking to her sister Jorga-Rai for guidance.

Both sisters, with their slender limbs, shiny black hair and big eyes, shared the same nervous excitement as they styled the 38 garments in the show, which were inspired by the artwork of local Aboriginal women.

“Since I was a little girl,” says Jorga Rai, “I’ve always wanted to be the center of attention.” I do like that about myself.

The 16-year-old Wongatha from Kalgoorlie says modeling empowers young women.

“Just smile, be yourself and stay confident,” she told her sister.

Jasyliah-Mae took Jorga-Rai’s advice to heart and was excited to walk the runway.

“I was nervous at first, but when I got on stage, everything was fine,” she says.

For the sisters, who learned their culture from their grandmother, an Aboriginal artist, designing these outfits meant not only showing others their individuality, but also their heritage.

At the fashion show, their culture was indeed in the spotlight, and they both chose the adjective “proud” to describe the experience.

“I felt] proud, a proud Aboriginal girl. I love that feeling,” Jorga-Rai said.

“It’s important to come here and represent Aboriginal art and show other people our culture,” Jasiliame said, echoing her sister’s words.

Rose Mitchell, a Barlardong Nyoongar artist in Coolgardie, organizes what she calls “wearable art” exhibitions.

She believes fashion can make Aboriginal art accessible to a wider public.

Aboriginal sisters shine in culturally inspired fashion show

“Not everyone likes to paint. Not everyone can hang a painting on a caravan,” she explains.

“That’s why we need to diversify and go out and find other mediums.”

Ross used to work at the town’s visitor center. But she had to disappoint tourists when they stopped in Coolgardie, the first major town settled during Western Australia’s 1890s gold rush, and asked for local souvenirs.

“We had to say we had nothing,” she says.

“I was like, ‘Maybe I should start doing something!'”

Ross started out making chopstick holders and tea towels, but a government grant allowed her to realize her dream of creating a “Woman’s Dream” line in town.

Judumul Aboriginal Corporation used the funds to purchase a printing press and specialized computers, and to train the sewing team.

A year later, the production process was fully localized: drawings created by the region’s Aboriginal artists were digitized and printed on fabric at 200 degrees Celsius.

When Rose saw her designs displayed on the runway, she cried.

“It was a dream come true,” she said.

“I just wanted to share my culture with the world. I think this is a great way to do that.

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