Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair

Zang Toi  Day ensemble. Ready-to-wear, fall/winter 2008–09 ,Bill Blass (United States), Day ensemble. Ready-to-wear, fall/winter 1997–98,Bob Mackie  Evening ensemble. Ready-to-wear, fall/winter 1984–85, Yves Saint Laurent (France), ‘Picasso’ evening dress (and detail). Haute couture, fall/winter 1979-80.

Images clockwise: Zang Toi Day ensemble. Ready-to-wear, fall/winter 2008–09, Yves Saint Laurent ‘Picasso’ evening dress, Haute couture, fall/winter 1979-80, Bill Blass Day ensemble. Ready-to-wear, fall/winter 1997–98, Bob Mackie Evening ensemble. Ready-to-wear, fall/winter 1984–85, . Images courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

First and foremost, it is about the clothes. As it should be—bold, colorful, often audacious, but always colorful clothes.

As the first trio of outfits at the entrance to the “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” exhibit suggest, the Ebony Fashion Fair, was about clothes. And not just any clothes—the flashiest haute couture and high-end designer fashions money could buy from Cardin, Dior and Lacroix to Saint Laurent, Pucci, Galliano for Dior and McQueen for Givenchy.

But the exhibit, like the Ebony Fashion Fair, is about more than just the clothes. The exhibit, which opened in March, is currently at the Chicago History Museum now through January 5, 2014 before it goes on tour across the country.

The Ebony Fashion Fair (EFF) began in 1958 and toured the United States, Caribbean and even London, England from 1961 until 2009. Created by Eunice W. Johnson, wife of Johnson Publications founder John H. Johnson, the EFF helped local groups raise money for charity while spreading the Johnsons’ gospel about aspirational culture to the black community. Over its history, the EFF raised more than $50 million for local charities.

Jean Patou day ensemble. Haute couture, fall/winter 1986–87.Chloé (France) by Karl Lagerfeld, Evening dress, ready-to-wear, fall/winter 1983-84, Krizia jumpsuit. Haute couture, fall/winter 1981–82.

Jean Patou day ensemble. Haute couture, fall/winter 1986–87,  Chloé  by Karl Lagerfeld, evening dress, ready-to-wear, fall/winter 1983-84, Valentino cocktail ensemble. Alta moda, fall/winter 1978–79, photograph by John Alderson. Images courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

“I really think my mother’s legacy was she brought beauty, style and sophistication to an African American audience,” said the couple’s only daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, in one of the exhibit’s many multimedia displays.

Model Pat Cleveland, who got her start with EFF when she was 15 said in the exhibit, “We let people see there’s something more to life than struggling.”

The EFF stopped touring after the 2009 season as many of its sponsoring groups found themselves needing to cut back on programming. Johnson died in 2010 at the age of 93.

While visitors may be dazzled by the outfits—Eunice Johnson, we are repeatedly reminded, loved boldly colorful and dramatic outfits for her shows—Joy Bivins, the exhibit’s curator, said the multimedia displays showcasing the EFF’s and Johnson Publications’ history were also a crucial part of the exhibit.

Eunice Johnson with designer Yves Saint Laurent, 1972. Photo courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC and Chicago History Museum.

Eunice Johnson with designer Yves Saint Laurent, 1972. Photo courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC and Chicago History Museum.

“It’s important that people get an understanding for all that the Ebony Fashion Fair represented,” Bivins said. “Showing the significance of the Ebony Fashion Fair in terms of the fashions is great. “But the Ebony Fashion Fair was a true cultural happening that affected everything from the Johnson’s philosophy on how black people’s accomplishments and beauty should be celebrated to the use of black models, and the impact the show had on people in the communities where the Fashion Fair appeared.”

To that end the exhibit not only features 67 outfits, but includes multimedia displays covering the behind-the-scenes stories of the Ebony Fashion Fair with comments from industry luminaries like longtime commentator Audrey Smaltz and Cleveland about life on the tour, including navigating the Jim Crow South during the ‘60s. Other multimedia displays chronicle how EFF fit into the overall Johnson Publishing Company empire which was anchored by Ebony and Jet magazines and how audiences embraced the EFF.

Among other things visitors will learn that Johnson purchased all of the outfits herself—up to $1 million worth each year—and that some designers were nervous about having their creations photographed on black models. The displays also remind visitors that unlike most fashion shows today, the EFF shows featured models who dramatically posed, twirled and strutted on the runway.

Silver raffia gown, Givenchy by Alexander McQueen, Evening dress. Haute couture, fall/winter 1997-98, Emanuel Ungaro, Bridal gown. Haute couture, fall/winter 1996–97,  Tilmann Grawe tubular plummage cocktail dress Haute couture, fall/winter 2003–04

Silver raffia gown, Givenchy by Alexander McQueen, Haute couture, fall/winter 1997-98, Emanuel Ungaro bridal gown. Haute couture, fall/winter 1996–97, Tilmann Grawe tubular plummage cocktail dress Haute couture, fall/winter 2003–04. Images courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Bivins said selecting outfits for the exhibit was a daunting task. “[The exhibit] is a very miniscule fraction of what was available. I would say there were between 3,500 and 5,000 pieces,” Bivins said. “Even once we narrowed things down, we could have easily had an exhibit that was three times the size of this one. “In selecting outfits, we went with designers there were obviously important to Mrs. Johnson and pieces that represented ideas and themes which were big for her.”

While the exhibit covers a lot of fashion ground, it doesn’t include any pieces from the EFF’s earliest days. Instead, the early years are represented mostly through photographs and a couple of film clips.

Nina Ricci cocktail ensemble. Coat, haute couture, fall/winter 1987–88. Azzedine Alaïa evening dress. Ready-to-wear, spring/summer 1986

Christian Dior evening ensemble. Haute couture, fall/winter 1968–69, Azzedine Alaïa evening dress, ready-to-wear, spring/summer 1986, Nina Ricci cocktail ensemble. Coat, haute couture, fall/winter 1987–88. Images courtesy of Chicago History Museum

“There were a couple of pieces from the late ‘60s that we really considered including but they had feathers on them and were more than 40 years old and weren’t in good condition. And there weren’t any pieces from the ‘50s at all,” she said.

Bivins pointed out that pieces from the early years may have also been in short supply because until the mid-‘70s the EFF used to sell off pieces for charity at the end of each season. “We still had some really spectacular pieces to choose from. Honestly, there were several exhibitions within that storage space. You could have done this in a few different ways,” Bivins said. “I think we met our biggest challenge—to really flesh out the breadth and fullness of the story of the Ebony Fashion Fair.

The Chicago History Museum is located at: 1601 N. Clark Street, Chicago IL. For more information call (312) 642-4600 or go online at www.chicagohistory.org.

—Karyn D. Collins

 

TOUR SCHEDULE for “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair”

Museum of Design Atlanta, GA
October 11, 2014 – January 4, 2015

Minnesota History Center, St. Paul, MN
May 22, 2015 – August 16, 2015

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI
September 18, 2015 – January 3, 2016

Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
January 30, 2016 – April 24, 2016

*Other dates and locations to be announced.

Nina Ricci cocktail ensemble. Coat, haute couture, fall/winter 1987–88,

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