IN THESE DAYS of clothing designers/manufacturers begging celebs and other “influencers” to wear their creations in public, it’s hard to imagine what things were like in the 1950s.
Especially if you wanted to show the very best, most extravagant clothing design available. And especially if your audience was going to be African American.
Eunice Walker Johnson, who founded Johnson Publishing (Ebony magazine, the weekly Jet and The Negro Digest) with her husband, John H. Johnson, had to virtually beg the couture houses of Paris to allow her to buy their clothes. That’s right, buy them.
The Johnsons’ idea was this: They had a loyal reader base, men and women who followed the black-interest publications avidly. Eunice Johnson had already created a Fashion Fair section in Ebony to showcase the styles of the moment. I’m skipping a couple of steps here, but why not gather a whole array of couture—later including some ready-to-wear—and take a whole fashion show on the road? Take style to the public, in a very real and exciting way. And sell tickets, with the money going to local charities.
As Johnson succeeded in getting buy-in from the Paris houses, she assembled the show’s models, putting, as she explained, the boldest colors on the darkest models. Yes, almost all of the models were black, which helped to bring some supermodels, like Pat Cleveland, to the fore. Johnson also used the annual extravaganza—for that is what it became—to showcase the work of young African American designers, such as Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Willi Smith and others.
The Ebony Fashion Fair became a phenomenon, its annual appearance, at its height, in more than 180 cities around the US, Canada and the Caribbean, ending in 2009; Eunice Johnson died at age 93 in January 2010. Johnson Publishing is now led by her daughter, Linda Johnson Rice.
But there’s a wonderful chance to get at least a little taste of what Ebony Fashion Fair was like: the exhibit “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” at the Textile Museum at the George Washington University Museum through July 24, 2017.
Some of the clothes included in the exhibit are true showstoppers; others are quiet examples of what good tailoring is (worth noting in a world where so many blouses have “roll-up sleeves” so the manufacturer doesn’t have to bother with those expensive cuffs, after all).
But the heart behind the clothing is clearly the endlessly elegant Eunice Walker Johnson. In the exhibit we see some of her invitations to Paris couture shows, photos of her standing proudly with her touring troupe of black models, all in couture. The exhibit, developed by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with the Johnson Publishing Company, brings a whole era to life.
At first I will confess to being puzzled by the concept of the Ebony Fashion Fair. After all, most of the couture clothing was by white Parisian designers—Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Givenchy, Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé. It’s true that giving exposure to black designers was part of Mrs. Johnson’s self-imposed mandate. But her greater aim was to bring the wider world of fashion, in all its aspirational aspects, to black communities, to show them, as she once put it, that there were things outside their local communities, things that could inspire them. It’s easy to argue that Johnson’s Ebony Fashion Fair gave her audiences greater exposure to serious design than most American white women get, even now in the Internet age.
Camille Ann Brewer, curator of contemporary art at the George Washington Museum and the Textile Museum, is the curator who coordinated the exhibition in DC. It was originally developed by curator Joy Bivins at the Chicago History Museum and Virginia Heaven, associate professor of fashion design at Columbia College Chicago.
The Textile Museum has a whole lineup of films, lectures and gallery talks to accompany the exhibit. Don’t miss any of it.