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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 mam.org.