Ebony Fashion Fair preview and exhibit honors pioneering presence for Black women

Arts no chaser

Ebony magazine, over the past half-century, has evolved in its significance as an integral aspect of African American identity, beginning as a pioneering presence of self-affirmation and now a sustained symbol of same. Part and parcel of this, of course, has been the perception and appreciation of Black women.

Evening dress, haute couture, fall/winter 1997-98. Silk raffia mounted on silk gauze. Appeared in “The Jazz Age of Fashions.”
Evening dress, haute couture, fall/winter 1997-98. Silk raffia mounted on silk gauze. Appeared in “The Jazz Age of Fashions.”

Accordingly, when the Minnesota History Center brings the Chicago History Museum exhibit “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” to the Twin Cities, it will be an event of, to say the least, singular significance.

Chicago History Museum exhibit developer and curator Joy Bivins noted, “Ebony and other Johnson Company publications were critical in bringing new images of Blackness, in general, and Black womanhood into the public sphere. It was a place where you could see Black beauty celebrated and done so with excellence. Without those images, it would be hard to imagine Black women as powerful, as beautiful, as exceptional.”

Bivins continued, “The publications did a great deal to shape that perception within and without the African American community. Now, we see multiple images of Black womanhood but…without the foundation the magazines laid — whether that be in featuring Black models, Black politicians and business leaders — that would not be the case. So, as much as this exhibition is about celebrating fabulous fashion and inspirational beauty, it is about celebrating that legacy.”

The Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit will bring to the Minnesota History Center a new, intriguing dimension that arches eyebrows and creates conversation that should be remembered for quite some time. Organized by the Chicago History Museum, in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, it originated as the fashion feature in Ebony, with the fair beginning in 1958.

“Fashion,” said Bivins, “was always the draw but the opportunity the show provided…to see fantastic fashion on women who looked like them was equally important.” She added, “The Ebony Fashion Fair runway ultimately helped redefine concepts of beauty, style and empowerment.”

This exhibit features 40 ensembles particularly relevant to late 20th and early 21st century fashion, including stunning gowns, feathered coats, statement designs, along with archival photographs and video.

The overall experience is a story of innovative vision, related through the history of Johnson Publishing Company co-founder Eunice Johnson. The exhibit features creations by, among others, Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint-Laurent, Patrick Kelly and Emanuel Ungaro. “The first Ebony Fashion Fair which occurred in 1958, as well as all subsequent shows, was a fundraiser and a marketing tool,” said Bivins.

“The show brought high-end fashion to Ebony readers, displayed on beautiful African American models, and raised money for charities. Each person in attendance received a year subscription to Ebony or a six-month subscription to Jet. It was a way to bring the magazine to life and reinforce the ideas that were part of the message of Ebony,” said Bivins.

There will be a show before the show, an, as it were, VIP soiree – red carpet-style fashion event and preview party on May 21, 8 pm – 11 pm ($25, $20 for Minnesota Historical Society members). Hosted by media personage Robyne Robinson, and featuring designs by Brandon Atherley, Sharon Cox-Cole, Hilda Mauya, Eli Nyamal, Raquel Redmond and Samantha Rei, the gala re-imagines legends of African American beauty incorporating original fabric by Shalom Fashions. Guests can take in photo ops, shop and have a sneak peek at the 40 original ensembles pulled from five decades of the Ebony Fashion Fair collection.

“Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” will be on view May 23 – Aug. 16. Admission is included with regular History Center admission of $11 for adults; $9 for seniors and college students; $6 for children ages six to 17; and free for children age five and under and MNHS members. Visit http://www.minnesotahistorycenter.org/exhibits for more info.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.