Fashion Culture | Fashion’s First Black Designers

Fashion Culture presents a series of Fashion’s Firsts, as part of EDGE’s education content.

Black fashion history is typically not part of the Western culture narrative from fashion institutions to fashion school’s curriculum.  It is unknown, or if known, overlooked.  EDGE recognizes the significant contribution Black fashion makers are to fashion’s history.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes, and Anne Cole Lowe are Black Fashion’s First designers – in their time, they were referred to as dressmakers or seamstresses.  Although their titles were boiled down to seamstresses, they deserve to be recognized as true pioneers.  What these three had in common was that they were not dressing everyday folks.  They dressed the society elite, politician wives, and entertainers., PL*033280.A and PL*033280E.
Dress worn by Mary Lincoln. The first lady wore the gown during the Washington winter social season in 1861–62. National Museum of American History.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley [1818-1907] – is best known as Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidant.  She built a successful dressmaking business in St Louis, Missouri and later in Washington D.C.  Her patrons included some of the most elite including Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, and Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee.  Keckley became acquainted with Mary Lincoln whom she met on President Lincoln’s first day in office.  The dress that Keckley designed for Mary Todd Lincoln to wear at her husband’s second inauguration ceremony and reception is held by the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.  She also wrote and published an autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868).
Photo of Jacqueline Kennedy in her wedding gown in the December 1966 issue of Ebony Magazine

Ann Cole Lowe [1898-1981] – Anne’s lifetime achievement and what she is famously noted for is designing the wedding party dresses and the wedding gown worn by Jacqueline Bouvier, future First Lady of the United States, for her marriage to John F. Kennedy, 1953.  The most photographed and iconic wedding dress in American history.  The wedding dress cost $500.  The story told by her niece, Dr. Lenore Cole Alexander, from the book Threads: The Fabric of Time, that when Anne arrived at the front door of the Bouvier estate, she was told to go around to the tradesmen’s entrance.  Anne’s remarks, “if I have to enter this by the back door, the bride and bridesmaids will not be dressed for the wedding.”  She was admitted through the front door. 

Her one-of-a-kind designs were sought after by wealthy and socially prominent women from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Although unknown to most at the time, Anne was part of the Harlem Renaissance era where there was an outpouring of artistic work in the Black community.  In 1946, Lowe designed the dress that actress Olivia de Havilland wore to accept the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Zelda Wynn Valdes fitting Eartha Kitt (at Chez Zelda boutique?), June 1952

Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes [1901-2001] was an African American fashion and costume designer. In 1948, Valdes was the first Black designer to open her own shop, “Zelda Wynn”, and claims being the first Black-owned business on Broadway in New York City.  Her designs have been worn by famous entertainers such as Dorothy Dandridge, Joyce Bryant, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, and Sarah Vaughan, among others.

In 1949 Valdes was elected president of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD), an organization of Black designers that was founded by educator and political activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

In 1958 Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner commissioned Valdes to design the first Playboy Bunny costumes which made its formal debut at the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago, Illinois on the evening of February 29, 1960.

In 1970, Arthur Mitchell, the first African American dancer with the New York City Ballet, asked Valdes to design costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem. She designed costumes for 82 productions.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Estate of Ella Fitzgerald
Label in dress (c.1940s) worn by Ella Fitzgerald.

Sources: Something to Prove: Anne Cole Lowe, America’s Forgotten Designer, Julia Faye Smith; Wikipedia;, Referenced in the Congressional Record, is an online reference center of materials on African American history in one central location on the Internet; Pieces of History National Archives.


Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor