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Ebony Fashion Fair: clothes showed way to a new reality

Wed, May 15, 2013

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The Chicago History Museum’s newly opened Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit showcases the legacy of the famous traveling fashion show, its powerful place in African American history, and the woman behind the vision.

Born in 1916 in the southern town of Selma, Ala., Eunice Johnson came from wealthy beginnings. According to a placard at the beginning of the exhibit, her mother was an educator and her father, a surgeon. The family used their means to establish Selma University and the National Baptist Convention.

Upon graduating from Talladega College, Eunice moved to Chicago to continue her education in social work at Loyola University. She eventually met and married Chicago businessman and entrepreneur, John H. Johnson, in the early 1940s. The couple launched Ebony in 1945. Eunice chose the name because of her fondness for the dark wood.

“She was always kind of singular in her experiences,” said Joy Bivins, the exhibit’s curator.

It was this singularity that inspired Eunice the most. With access to the fashion world that few, if any, African American women had, she traveled to Europe every year, met with top designers and paid cash for garments with the intention of showcasing them on black models in Ebony. The goal was to bring the glamour, vision and power of haute couture into African American culture.

Not everyone was quick to accept Eunice’s ambitions. Some designers feared that black women seen wearing their clothes would discourage white women from purchasing them. In time however, her talent prevailed, and as Ebony’s circulation soared, designers began to appreciate the way their work was being photographed throughout the magazine’s pages.

“The designers started to realize that she really had a connoisseur’s eye,” Bivins said.
The Ebony Fashion Fair became an extension of the magazine’s mission and success. Beginning in 1961, the traveling fashion show featured 10 to 12 models and countless designs Eunice had purchased from Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Patrick Kelly, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and Christian Lacroix. The models journeyed through 90 cities in three months on a Greyhound bus. Stops included segregated cities in the deep South, where models discovered they were not allowed to use the public restrooms and were forced to enter and exit restaurants through the back door.

The 60 garments chosen for the exhibition are representative of the excitement, bold beauty and unwavering confidence of the Fashion Fair. Unlike a typical runway show, models twirled, danced, smiled and were as much the centerpieces of the runway as the clothes.

One placard reads, “African Americans have historically used clothing to signify personal dignity and identity even when both were denied by the larger society, an idea Mrs. Johnson well understood. She believed that attention to one’s entire ensemble – the perfect wrap, hat, and shoes – was essential.”
The show became ideal training ground for young aspiring black models like Pat Cleveland, who was struggling to make it in an industry dominated by white, blue-eyed blondes.

In an on-camera interview displayed in the exhibit, Cleveland underscores the transformative power of Fashion Fair. African American women could finally see for themselves that “there’s something more to life than struggling. There’s glamour, there’s beauty, and you can have it too.”

As her career began to skyrocket, the signature style of the Ebony runway became Cleveland’s trademark. She was soon a favorite among designers like Halston and Emanuel Ungaro, and photographer, Richard Avedon.

Perhaps the most inspirational and moving aspect of the exhibit takes visitors into a replica of the Ebony boardroom, where they are invited to sit at the head of the table and listen to the voice of John Johnson tell the story of Ebony Fashion Fair and its role in a much larger picture. He discusses the establishment of the Johnson Publishing Company, and his determination to change the ways African Americans were depicted in mainstream media.

Ebony Fashion Fair serves as a contribution to the Johnsons’ vision. “Far more than a display of beautiful things” as the exhibit reads, “the show offered black women a vision of what they could wear and, ultimately, who they could be.”

By Lauren Jensik,
StreetWise Contributor

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