In 1958 when Ebony magazine launched its first traveling fashion show, black women could not try on a dress in most department stores and, if they took a dress home to try on, they could not return it.
With that as her introduction, Linda Daugherty, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the N.C. Museum of Art, began the story of how haute couture fashion for black American women became a vehicle to reinforce positive cultural identity.
The idea of a high-fashion extravaganza was pulled from the pages of Ebony, a pictorial publication like Life, for middle-class African-Americans. John and Eunice Johnson of Chicago went into the publishing business in the early 1940s and by 1945, at the end of World War II, had found their flagship vehicle in the monthly publication Ebony, which was in part informed by blacks’ experiences as servicemen promoting American freedom and democracy abroad despite its denial to black Americans at home. The magazinefocused on black celebrities like Lena Horne, Nat King Cole and Joe Louis. It included travel destinations, recipes and the latest in women’s clothes. Expanding the magazine’s fashion section to a charitable event was a shrewd business decision, but it also focused on African-American life filled with success, achievement and the possibilities of the good life.
The Museum of Art gallery glitters with 40 ensembles made of silks and satins, sprinkled with sparkling stones, feathers and intricate needlework, and accented with fox, mink and sable. They are, as museum director Larry Wheeler, suggested, the Porsches of women’s fashions. And on every garment are such famous designer names as Cardin, Dior, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Valentino and many more. It is the first women’s fashions the museum has hosted and emphasizes that design, whether part of a 17th century painting, women’s clothes or automobiles, is an integral part of art. Over its lifetime the show has traveled to 30 cities and played in 187 venues from posh hotels to high school gyms and raised over $55 million for African-American charities. The show was in Durham at least once in the 1970s.
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A traveling fashion show was a great idea, but getting the right mix of models and clothing was another matter. There were many beautiful black women who were well-known models in a small, restricted world and there were hair stylists and cosmetologists who knew how to make them even more beautiful but there were no black designers.
The Johnsons went to Europe to the biggest fashion houses to see and buy clothes, but the designers were not interested; they were afraid white women would not value their designs if they were worn by black women. Mrs. Johnson begged, persuaded and finally threatened and a few gave in, especially when it became clear she was not borrowing, she was buying. The catalogue, published by the Chicago Historical Society, includes important essays by Joy L. Bivins, curator at the Chicago History Museum, Virginia Heaven, assistant professor in fashion studies at Columbia College, and Rosemary K. Adams of the Chicago History Museum who write on the history of the exhibit and how style affects women of all ethnicities. Anyone interested in fashion needs it in their library.
The ensembles are arranged on small platforms allowing visitors to see the clothes from all sides. Traditionally a runway show was organized in two acts: daytime clothes and swimwear were first and after a musical intermission, evening clothes were featured. The finale was always a bridal gown and the one here, designed by Emanuel Ungaro, is fabulous with its beaded lace bodice and skirt embellished with embroidered floral sprays.
The models did not just walk the runway; they sashayed, moved, danced, demonstrating that these clothes were meant to work with the body. Not every model was tall and sylph-like; there were some who were size 12 (plus sizes today), but color and design were included for every size and it was in these shows the big girl could see herself as sexy, pretty and stylish.
For me there are two show stoppers; one is the Tilmann Grawe “Cocktail Dress” which is a short creation of taffeta, horn, plastic and glass beads, horsehair tubing and plastic boning and looks like fireworks exploding. The other is Karl Lagerfeld’s “showerhead” evening dress. The front is relatively plain with a double vertical row of diamante buttons, but the back is a sensational “showerhead” stream of crystal bugle beads pouring down the entire length of the dress.
The clothes are colorful, sexy and dazzling but the question is who wears them and where? Rich women buy these clothes, but the designers are saying as much about trends as they are about the clothes themselves. At the time some houses gave the rights to copy to companies that made them for under $50. In “Ebony” readers were encouraged to buy fabric and a pattern and make their own copies.
Over the years Mrs. Johnson developed an eye for the newest ideas; these shows became trend setters and reinforced positive cultural identity. One example of the show’s influence came in 1991 when Mattel offered new dolls, named for the most glamorous Ebony models, and little African-American girls had dolls with their own skin color. As the years went on African-American designers entered the haute couture world and, some made it to the Ebony shows; having their clothes next to the outstanding designers of the time was the best publicity they could get.
The Ebony shows were not political, except in the broadest sense of the term, they were about identity, self-evaluation, and the American dream. Johnson did not shy away from civil rights, but he identified African- Americans as a market for mainstream American products. He believed economic success would spawn political power and social advancement and he built a publishing empire on that premise.
If you go
“Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” runs through Jan. 21 at the North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh.