The doyenne of the Dashiki has transcended
Queen Mother Mariamne Samad passed away in Jamaica on Thursday, September 5. Born in Harlem, New York, in 1922 in a family of Garveyites, she herself evolved into a quintessential Garveyite who was well known about in Garveyism and black pride circles the world over.
Yet, what many people did not know – and what some still do not know – is that Samad created the dashiki, that loose shirt/blouse made of African prints, a symbol of African pride that was extremely popular in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Apart from regular people, musicians and other black celebrities helped to turn the dashiki into a black fashion statement that came from the imagination of none other than the young woman who was teaching black pride and putting on fashion shows in the New York public-school system in the very late 1950s/early ‘60s, when racial tensions were high in the United States.
She noticed that the “little black boys had problems”. “They were jumping up and down, and the teachers could not control them. So one day, it hit me: Maybe if I gave them a special garment that was their own (they would behave themselves). Let’s try it,” she recalled to The Gleaner in a 2017 interview.
At the time, she used to frequent the United Nations (UN), where she would see African delegates wearing loose-fitting shirts. She got the idea that she could make shirts such as those for the restless little boys. And she did, first with white cotton cloths.
“I noticed when they put on this little shirt, with the hat to match, they would calm down and just be wonderful little fellows,” she said. But there was a ‘little problem’, as indicated by the principal of Public School 68 in Harlem. The name of the shirt was too long, and a name change was requested.
Samad had come up with darasak (stitched cloth) shikalu (of the people) ki-swahili (an African language), but the little boys laughed at darasakshikalukiswahili. So she went back to the drawing board and came up with an abbreviation, ‘dashiki’.
“And I decided that Dashiki was the name of the garment … , and the children loved the name. So there I was. I had my name for my little garment that was just an ordinary little shirt that the fellows at the UN were wearing. But I noticed it has gone all over the world. So I feel like I have kinda given something to the world, the African shirt, and it’s so nice when the Africans wear them to my house and say, ‘I have a dashiki’, and I would say, ‘This is wonderful’.”
The dashiki, especially the mass-produced printed versions, has made a resurgence over the past several years, and there are many stories of how it came about. But only one of them is authentic, that of the creator, Queen Mother Mariamne Samad.
In an Amsterdam News article published on Saturday, May 23, 1971, the writer says, “Mrs Samad has lived to see her brainchild and creation revered by famous couturiers the world over. These same designers of haute couture have literally made fortunes designing and manufacturing the Dashiki ... . It has since become an accepted worldwide word describing the African-styled blouse (shirt) type garment.”
Apart from the dashiki, Samad made and promoted African outfits for women. She had her own bevy of Soncure Nubian models putting on fashion parades and Solomon and Sheba cultural shows in several states.
“I’ve been very fortunate to bring through the African dress for the women, who told me at first they were not gonna wear them because they were not Africans. And today, you see some of the most beautiful women, especially in Jamaica, in these beautiful African outfits. The fact that I haven’t personally written a book, I feel so satisfied with myself, that I have contributed,” she said.
She had, indeed, and the dashiki is part of her legacy. It is an everlasting reminder of the fashion genius of the woman who was proud to be black and who went around in African clothes all the time, sometimes accented by the colours of the Universal Negro Improvement Association: red, black, and green.