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Ebony fashion comes to Milwaukee

Photos courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC

January 2015

For African-Americans living in the Jim Crow-era, gaining access to the world of haute couture would have seemed a distant dream. One only needed to peruse the pages of Vogue magazine to see that high fashion was a luxury reserved for whites ó leaving blacks prodigiously excluded from societyís perception of style and beauty.

Eunice W. Johnson set out to change that. As the wife of Chicago publisher John H. Johnson and an executive at their flagship publications, Ebony and Jet, in the 1950s, Johnson created a traveling runway show and hit the road to bring high style to the African-American middle class.

Traveling by buses loaded down with gowns, accessories and models, the group toured the country and raised millions for charity along the way.

When not on the road, Johnson would trek the world in search of gowns to purchase ó going to fashion houses in New York City, Milan and Paris ó and was repeatedly refused because of her race. Designers worried that showing their work on black models would degrade the appeal of their brands. Johnson would often flip open her checkbook, write a check for $50,000, and astutely educate the designers on the value of the black consumer. Most got the message.

The Ebony Fashion Fair would go on to become the African-American "event of the year" for nearly five decades, attracting thousands of attendees, to catch a glimpse of designs by the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Hubert de Givenchy, Bob Mackie and Christian Dior.

Though the show was shuttered in 2009, Milwaukeeans will get a chance to view Johnsonís exclusive collection when "Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair" arrives at the Milwaukee Art Museum this February.

The exhibit will feature the largest collection ever shown to the public, with 67 couture ensembles, ranging from the sophisticated and gorgeous to over-the-top outrageous, on display. In addition to the clothes, visitors will learn how Johnson, the designers and the Fashion Fair models changed the face of African-American beauty for generations to come.

"The history can really be seen throughout this event," says Camille Morgan, an independent curator and arts administrator at Columbia College Chicago and guest curator for MAM. "Itís really multifaceted. Visitors will be able to come through it with their own interests: civil rights, fashion, the (fashion) industry. Fashion is not necessarily the medium that youíre going to learn about something like this."

The theme of the exhibit is "Vision. Innovation. Power," and will be supplemented with oral history, historical excerpts and discussion panels, such as "What Color is Nude?" All of the mannequins in the exhibit will be brown-skinned.

When Ebony was first published, African-American women were still dying their stockings with coffee to match their skin tone and avoiding bold colors in an effort to mute it.

"People would say black women couldnít wear bold colors because it clashed with their skin. Now itís the opposite," says Morgan. "Eunice really brought those ideas forth that didnít really exist before. You never see brown people in this context, in high couture designersí clothes. Itís really emotional."

The exhibit runs Feb. 5 through May 3. For more information, visit



This story ran in the January 2015 issue of: