By Mary Minor Davis –
Jenna Miller grew up in an idyllic era of the Southwest. A Sierra Vista cowgirl, she spent her youth riding horses and, she said, “playing outside with the dirt.”
Her mother was a seamstress and wanted to teach her girls to sew, but Miller never felt the desire to pick up the sewing needle as a young girl. Yet at the age of 20, she moved to northern Arkansas and spent 10 years working on a dairy farm. There, she met a woman who quilted and taught her the basics of sewing.
“For some reason, at that time in my life, I just developed a passion for sewing, and I started teaching myself, mostly through trial and error,” she said. “I would go to department stores and turn clothing inside and out to see how things were made, and then I’d go home and try to mimic patterns. That’s how I taught myself to come up with my own designs.”
Miller returned to southeast Arizona to care for her mother, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
In the beginning, sewing was a hobby. She’d make her clothes and wear them around town. Then friends started asking her to make things for them, including wedding dresses. After returning to Arizona, she visited Tombstone and started paying attention to the Victorian dresses the reenactors were wearing. That led to her to make her first Victorian-style black velvet dress that would change the course of her career.
“It was the start of a lot of opportunity,” she said. The wrangler by day and stage actress by night “started wearing that dress in shows that I was in around Tombstone and at the former Apache Spirit Ranch (now Tombstone Monument Ranch).” Then a German filmmaker shooting a documentary about the ranch saw Miller in the dress and hired her to be in his production.
Not long after that, Miller and her husband, Craig Hensley, were cast in a local film together. On the day of the costume fitting, Miller wanted to wear her black velvet dress despite her husband’s protestations that the costume designer on set wouldn’t approve.
“It had just never been done,” said Hensley, an experienced actor. “Here’s me thinking I know everything about the business and telling her no, they won’t let you wear your own dress, they have a professional costume designer. But I told her if she wanted to wear it, go ahead.” And she did.
At the fitting, the costume designer, Paula Rogers, asked Miller where she had gotten the dress. When she explained she’d made it, Rogers hired her on the spot, launching Miller’s career in costume designing.
“I’ve been working for Paula ever since,” Miller said. “She’s been my mentor for costuming.”
In just a couple of years, Miller’s resume filled quickly with more than 50 local, regional and national theater, television and film credits – plus photo shoots for companies including Nike and National Geographic Traveler. Recently, a short film titled “Common Threads” shot entirely at Old Tucson received six awards at the Best Short Films Competition in La Jolla, California, including best costume design by Miller. She also worked on the soon-to-be-released “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” a Kix Brooks production shot at Old Tucson, at Casino del Sol and in Bisbee.
“I’ve seen a lot of nice costumes, and I’ve worn a lot of nice costumes, but until that day (when Miller met Rogers) I didn’t have an appreciation for how good the work was that she was doing,” Hensley said. “I do now.”
Meanwhile, Miller continued to design clothing and decided it was time to launch her own designs. Since 2013, she’s been working toward this goal, building her resume and launching her e-commerce site, Ravenna Old West. Now the public can purchase her designs online.
“My company works a bit differently than regular factory-made clothing stores in that we will be periodically rolling out new themes rather than clothing lines,” she said. “Since I specialize in costuming rather than fashion, my clothing will be produced in themes that depict different Western scenes and moments in the history of the West, kind of like the theme of a movie.”
Her first line, “Bandida,” which means “Bad Girl” in Spanish, represents strong women who helped shape the West – like Belle Star, Calamity Jane and Nellie Cashman.
“Along with the ‘gritty cowgirl’ influence this theme of clothing has, it is also heavily infused with Spanish/Mexican influences inspired by the Mexican vaqueros and señoritas who helped shape the West, so the garments have lots of conchos and Spanish detailing,” she said.
Coming from a ranching history, Miller said her designs draw from her experience, her ancestry and the cultures she’s grown up with. One thing she stresses about her clothing is that it will never be produced in a factory setting because she said people are drawn to the quality of her clothing. Everything will be hand-made in Tombstone by seamstresses. This is particularly important, she said, as some of the techniques used to age and dye for depth and dimension are very meticulous and the translation would get lost in factory production.
Some of the other themes Miller is launching include
• A new men’s line, “The Diego”
• “Purdies, Parades & Petticoats,” featuring corsets, petticoats, bloomers and saloon-girl costumes depicting the women performers of the West
• “Victorian Orchard,” offering bright linen and lace Victorian-influenced designs
• “Prairies & Plains,” which she said depict the women of the prairie towns and pioneers
• “Black & White in the Badlands,” an entirely black-and-white pallet of Western-punk designs that she said are “edgy and extravagant. This will be my personal tribute to Tim Burton.”
Miller said she has an endless store of designs in her head and wants to bring as many as she can to life.
“These designs are my imaginings, my musings brought to life. That Western world in my head is vast. It is the wild-west world of Ravenna. My goal is to bring everything of the Old West into the New West, to create something that’s never been.”