From civil rights to the catwalk, Ebony Fashion Fair defied all odds and left an empowering effect on the African American community.
The cumulative effect of years of presenting high fashion to African Americans, on African Americans, with African Americans taste-making in mind, enabled Mrs. Johnson to be a change-agent who harnessed the power of fashion to reinforce positive cultural identity.
– Virginia Heaven, Associate Professor of Fashion Design at Columbia College³
On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, thus launching the modern-day civil-rights movement, fighting for equality. Enough was enough in all parts of the African American society and that included access to fashion and defining beauty.
Pre, post and during the civil rights era [1950-1963], African Americans were largely excluded from or discriminated against in fashion – from the lack of recognition of Black fashion makers, such as Anne Cole Lowe, designer of Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, to the lack of model representation on the runway or in the media.
Fashion’s power and role is to define an era. It dictates the social norms, social unrest, the image standards of the time, and can be a signifier of class structure. Fashion on the runway and in the magazines seemed out of reach for many in the Black community, who aspired to be part of the Eurocentric norm. Designers did not show any interest in the African American community; therefore, they had no desire for them to wear their clothes.
Certain designers assumed that White women wouldn’t value their designs if they were worn by Black women. – John H. Johnson, founder, Johnson Publishing Company³
With the backdrop of these times, Eunice Johnson, co-founder of Chicago, Illinois based Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines, and founder of Ebony Fashion Fair [EFF], changed that. She altered a historical trajectory that defied the odds, broke down the barrier of couture and high-fashion targeted exclusively for whites and asserted her way into those fashion houses.
Ebony Fashion Fair, which began its five-decade run in 1958, brought fashion to Black society. It was significant in advancing Black culture’s importance in the American story of fashion and its empowering effect was three-fold: Black beauty, Black inclusion, and the philanthropic impact on the Black community.
Ebony Fashion Fair was a platform for the pride of Black beauty and was the first fashion show to employ African American models and later was the first to introduce plus-size models. Seeing people who looked like you was a sensation and gave a sense of pride, but when plus-sized models took to the stage, wow, you were ‘speaking to the choir’. Women with curves could visualize themselves and it made it all real.
For more than 50 years, 10 models [8 women, 2 men, one of which was Richard Roundtree who later became famous from the 1970’s iconic hit film series, Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks] toured numerous cities every year in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean – 30 cities its first year and at its height, EFF models performed in 187 venues to crowds that could exceed five thousand.³ They walked the runway, donning multi-thousand-dollar outfits from the couture houses of the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Valentino, and Givenchy to the up-and-coming African American designers of the likes of Stephen Burrows and Fabrice. Little did they know that they were shaking up the industry and becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process, especially in contrast to the Jim Crow laws of segregation. While traveling in the South, before the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, models had seen, for the first time, ‘segregated’ signs. They were not allowed to go into diners or use bathrooms, only the ones for ‘colored’. For their safety, they ate on the bus. John H. Johnson directed the white driver to get take out food for the traveling models and crew.
From the 1950’s through the 1980’s Ebony magazine featured high-profile models such as Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, and Iman. One of the unique aspects of EFF was how it selected models for the touring show – recruiting non-agency models from Small Town, America. Being one of the chosen ones gave you access to wearing fine garments and touring across the country to display them. It was a big deal to become an EFF model. Carolyn Dawson, who modeled for the 1977/1978 show, was a newcomer to fashion. When she auditioned and got advanced to the second round of cuts, she was humbled by her good fortune, “I didn’t realize how famous the show was. Many models auditioned year after year and were emotionally disappointed to not get in.” Some of the 1960’s and 1970’s models who did ‘get in’ and became well-known were Paula Bond, Del Anderson Handy, Terry Springer Walker, Faye Clerk-Mosley, and Judy Pace. Judy, who participated in the 1962, 1963 show and was featured in numerous Jet magazines, declared EFF “a beauty revolution”.
In time, with the exposure of both print and touring models, the public and industry began to take notice of Black is beautiful. It paved the way for opportunities to cross the color line. In the 1960’s, a milestone hit print media: Black models graced the covers of multiple international fashion magazines: including the first Black Supermodels, Donyale Luna on the covers of Harper’s Bazaar and British Vogue, and Beverly Johnson on the covers of Glamour and American Vogue.
Ethenya J. Hood, retired educator and member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, remembers that the models represented the range of Black women, a further exploration of what is Black beauty. “The models showed the differences in skin types, hair types, and body types. The show introduced the diversity of the Black woman and the different ways she can look.” She recalls “the afro said a lot”, because of the look worn by political activist Angela Davis and the Black Panther movement. “The afro was radical at the time because Black women had to wear the ‘Euro’ look to be accepted into [white] society.” Quite the opposite now, but an example of the times.
Seeing a void in the market for women of color who were underserved by the cosmetics industry, Eunice Johnson founded Fashion Fair cosmetics in 1973 – another example of empowering and making the case for Black beauty.
EFF brought fashion to the people in real life in real places, something that most never thought was possible. “It was an upscale, exciting manner, knowing that you were seeing something extraordinary that was basically making history”, recalls Nena Ivon, EFF attendee.¹ Attendees were able to put aside their struggles for equality for a moment and be inspired by possibilities. Pat Cleveland, EFF model, reflects on the show’s benefits, “there’s something more to life than struggling, there’s glamour, there’s beauty and you can have it too”.¹ The show visually showcased and celebrated the best in Black life.
Inclusion was the power of the purse. Mrs. Johnson was not initially welcomed in her efforts in purchasing from these haute couture houses. “Eunice had to ‘beg, persuade and threaten’ European designers to sell high fashion to a Black woman”, writes her husband, John H. Johnson, in his memoir. “But attitudes changed quickly when it became clear she wasn’t begging or borrowing, she was buying”, says her daughter, Linda Johnson Rice. “She opened those doors herself. You had to explain to Dior, you had to explain to Valentino. It wasn’t as if they weren’t welcoming, they were unsure.” Eunice wrote checks for $50,000 at a time and was the top American purchaser of couture, accumulating 8,000 ensembles.²
Although, initially, white designers were not attuned to the African American community, they eventually realized the commercial power of its market. Consumers at large had the means to acquire. After the show, attendees rushed backstage to place their orders. A change of tune in the industry was inevitable. Audrey Smaltz, the famous commentator of the show from 1970-1977, remembers how the white designers finally acknowledged the popularity and fame of EFF. “They would show up, Bill Blass came to our shows, Oscar de la Renta and Geoffrey Beene, it was wonderful to see some of the designers. Grace Mirabella, former editor-in-chief of American Vogue, came to the show and they realized how important we were.”
Mrs. Johnson validated the work of Black designers who were rarely afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Each year she included examples of emerging and established designers including Scott Barrie, Stephen Burrows, Rufus Barkley, Henry Jackson, Patrick Kelly, and Willi Smith. This focus helped propel other Black designers into opportunities for exposing the caliber of their work. The Johnsons were inspiring on so many levels. The EFF platform was a stepping stone of entrepreneurial aspirations for those involved in the behind-the-scenes work as well, including hairdressers and makeup artists.
The event was THE event. I know firsthand. In the 70’s, I attended EFF with my mother during high school and later in college as a participant sponsor with my sorority sisters of Delta Sigma Theta. The scene outside, pre-show, was a show within itself. Everyone was dressed to the nines, trying to outdo each other. Black people dress for themselves or within a standard that circulates within their communities. The church historically has been at the center of nurturing these standards. My mother was dressed up for the occasion in her ‘Sunday best’, with hat, matching bag and shoes. I, too, may have had on my Sunday best, showcasing a dressed up attire, but the crowd was dressed up and out. Here’s the message: fashion has its own power in communicating and the language at that moment on the street waiting to get in was ‘look at me, I garner respect and inclusion in an event that normally excludes me’. Maxine Leeds Craig, author of Ain’t I a Beauty Queen: Black Women, Beauty and the Politics of Race, writes, “when Black men and women stepped out into a society dominated by whites, they carried themselves into places where their value was likely to be threatened. Dress was a way to demand the respect that could not be taken for granted. Dress was a way to assert one’s high value in public, regardless of economic position”.³ I lived it and can concur.
Ophelia De Vore-Mitchell, who founded Grace Del Marco Model Agency and the Ophelia De Vore School of Self-Development and Modeling in New York City in the 1940’s, paved the way for models of color. Her mission was to train and develop Black people for a better representation, against the stereotype images, like Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima. Her modeling agency and “charm” school was a big deal during that time, helping the Black community present themselves. But she learned something even greater, that Blacks just wanted to be recognized for the talent and beauty they had. In Brian Lanker’s I Dream A World, Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, De Vore-Mitchell said this about inclusion, identity, and how one sees themselves, “in the beginning it was strictly modeling. But then we found out that most Blacks and minorities did not necessarily want to be models. What they wanted was recognition as attractive human beings who can do a job in any field.”
With an all-Black production, a diverse audience, although the crème de la crème of Black society and A-list celebrities attended, this empowering moment was what the Johnsons set out to do, reinforce a positive cultural identity. Who were some of the A-listers? To name a few: Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Congressman Ron Dellums, and Muhammed Ali, who was known to want to meet the models backstage and with entourage and all, he did.
EFF was not just any fashion show. Its charitable goals were to lift the economic levels of the community. In contrast, in a subsequent EDGE article of the fashion show, Battle of Versailles, money was raised to restore the Palace of Versailles in France. EFF ticket sales went to national and local organizations such as the United Negro College Fund, Black sororities and fraternities, and sickle-cell anemia research. The funds were used to further advance the vision of Blacks for a better future and progress towards a sustainable middle class.
Over the lifetime of the production, more than $60 million was raised from the show for Black nonprofit organizations, scholarships, schools and hospitals.
Other historical notes:
In 1961, the models were invited to the White House through connections to EFF’s then-director, Freda DeNight. They unexpectedly met president John F. Kennedy and had an elegant dinner in the White House with strawberry shortcake. There is a photo featured in the Oct. 26, 1961 issue of Jet Magazine.²
From March 2013 thru May 2014, the Chicago History Museum exhibited Inspiring Beauty: Fifty Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, curated by Joy L. Bivins. The exhibit has since toured U.S. cities. From the forward of the exhibition catalogue, Eunice Johnson’s daughter writes:
I am grateful for the foundation my mother laid and proud of the legacy she built. With principle, purpose and her impeccable taste, the world of fashion was revolutionized and the way Black women see themselves was changed forever.
– Linda Johnson Rice, Johnson Publishing Company³
The Empowering Effect of Ebony Fashion Fair is part of A Study of Eight, a curated editorial project advancing the study of African Americans’ contribution to fashion history. Eight American stories cover people and events of cultural and historical significance occurring between 1880 and 1980 against the backdrop of the post Reconstruction era to beyond the civil rights movement. These stories represent the voices of Black Americans who, many at the time, were denied employment, denied credit for their work, or overlooked for their contribution to fashion history, and more importantly, to American history. But against all odds, Black people used the power of fashion to transform their identity and culture to be included, respected, and recognized for their talent, beauty, and brains.
Black History Month [BHM] is a tribute to American history and is celebrated 365 days of the year. In the belief that fashion is a legitimate subject of study and as part of EDGE’s education content, Fashion Culture presents A Study of Eight, acknowledging the significant contribution Black fashion makers and Black influencers are to fashion’s history.
Notes, sources, suggested further study:
¹Inspiring Beauty – 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, Youtube, 2013
³Chicago History Museum, Inspiring Beauty: Fifty Years of Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition catalogue, 2013
Youtube, The History Makers, hosted by Teri Agins, former fashion editor of the Wall Street Journal, Black Fashion and Beauty: A Historical View, (5 December 2020)
All images and other credits:
Inspiring Beauty: Fifty Years of Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit developed by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, LLC, presented by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum, and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C.
Feature image designer credit: [far left] Bill Blass (United States), Fall Winter 1997-98, appeared in The Great Fashion Mix; [far right] Jean-Louis Scherrer (France), Fall/Winter 2000-01, appeared in Fashion Sensation
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