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Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair

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Posted November 2, 2017 by qotsm in Fashion & Style

Everyone is familiar with Ebony magazine. It wasn’t merely a magazine, it was and still is a staple in the Black community. It was quite commonplace to walk into a friend or family member’s home and see the latest copy on the coffee table or in the magazine rack. For over five decades, Ebony magazine’s Fashion Fair traveled the country and the world over using clothes to break the color barrier. Jackie Robinson had baseball, Eunice Johnson had a sewing machine and a dream. Johnson and her husband, John H. Johnson, owned Johnson Publishing Co. They originally launched Ebony Fashion Fair as a way to expand the audiences for their magazines, Jet and Ebony, while raising money for charity. Although fashion drove the project, philanthropy was the goal. While raising millions of dollars, little did they realize the impact the show would have. They had no idea how much it would change the fashion industry by introducing globally renowned designers and their cutting-edge fashions to black audiences.

The show, which toured the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean from 1958 to 2009, was more than a glamorous affair. It was an event to remember. Now, for the first time in its history, there is an exhibition titled  “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair”  that is touring the country much like the models who originally gave it life. The traveling exhibition’s most recent stop was at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. The breathtaking exhibit illustrates the story of the groundbreaking show through 40 garments selected from a collection of thousands by world renowned designers including Givenchy, Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Yves Saint Laurent, and Naeem Khan, who dressed former first lady Michelle Obama on several occasions. There are numerous designers who were just starting out like Bob Mackie who designed pieces for Ebony Fashion Fair that went on to superstardom later designing for Cher, The Carol Burnett Show, and many Hollywood A-list celebrities.

The exhibition sprawls across two floors of the GWU/Textile Museum, highlighting 40 ensembles worn in previous Fashion Fairs ranging from intricate gowns to feathered coats, along with accessories and videos to recreate the ‘Fair’ experience. What is so impressive is that the exhibition emphasizes “the notion that black is beautiful even before that was a movement in the 1960s,” said Camille Ann Brewer, curator of contemporary art at the museum. That empowering notion is what inspired Eunice Walker Johnson, who co-founded Johnson Publishing Co. to launch the show back in 1958.

The Ebony Fashion Fair brought haute couture to African Americans for the first time becoming the initial fashion show to introduce black models to the runway. This was huge in breaking barriers of inequality that existed at the time. It was initially met with much discrimination and pushback. Designers feared what their white clients might think if high-end brands were worn by African Americans. By putting “first-class fashion on second-class citizens,” Johnson brought new opportunities to black men and women and changed an insular industry, according to the museum. “The exhibit and work illustrate the glamour and sensation of the Ebony Fashion Fair,” says Brewer. “The ‘Fair’ was an annual event that people really looked forward to. People would dress up and it was a fun competition with folks on who could wear the sharpest outfits as audience members. You didn’t know what you were going to see.”

The mannequins were custom-made for the exhibition, and many are in the image of iconic African American models such as Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. There are also historic newspaper clippings and photos from when the ‘Fair’ stopped in Washington, D.C. Also, as a dedication to Johnson’s accomplishments, the exhibit includes photographs and memorabilia commemorating her career. In addition to working as Ebony’s fashion editor, Johnson created her own cosmetics line because it was difficult to find makeup for darker skin tones at the time. The groundbreaking nature of the Fashion Fair expanded the brand’s reach to include the makeup line for African-American women after Eunice observed her models mixing foundations to suit their varying complexions.

In the pages of her magazines and in the fashion fair, Johnson dressed her darker-toned models in the collection’s brightest fashions. Instead of shying away from dark skin like others in the fashion industry, she wholeheartedly embraced it. In his memoir, John H. Johnson writes that at first, Eunice Johnson had to ‘beg, persuade and threaten’ European designers to sell high fashion to a black woman. Johnson eventually became one of the world’s top couture buyers, purchasing an estimated 8,000 designs for the show over the course of her life.

Ebony showcased emerging black designers alongside established names and continued to find new ways to push the boundaries on the runway, eventually adding plus-size models to her shows. “What caught me off guard at the show was the response to the plus-size models. The men in the audience would go crazy; they would go berserk. It really validated the appeal of plus-size models,” Brewer said. Johnson had a huge impact on the world of high fashion at a time when dark skin was rarely celebrated. She opened doors and opened minds, expanding the concept of beauty to include the full color spectrum and illustrating the power of clothing to reshape cultural attitudes.

Despite the limitations it faced over the decades, the Ebony Fashion Fair only came to an end when the Great Recession forced the Johnson Publishing Company to cancel the show’s fall 2009 season. Unfortunately, by that time, its relevance in the fashion world had already begun to wane as the mainstream fashion industry finally began to embrace African-American models and designers on a much larger scale.

The collection of European and domestic couture has previously been viewed in Chicago, Seattle, Detroit, upstate New York, and Atlanta. This is the exhibit’s seventh stop on its eight-city tour across the country, with the show wrapping up in Raleigh, N.C., after its D.C. run ends this month. After that, the “Inspiring Beauty” exhibit will be permanently retired. But make no mistake, Ebony Fashion Fair may be over for now, but “Inspiring Beauty” solidifies the show’s legacy forever not only in Black culture, but in the enduring culture of American fashion.

Darryl Rembert


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