Let’s take a fresh look back in time: it’s 1979. You attended the 22nd Annual Ebony Fashion Fair in your hometown. The show’s theme was “COLOR EXPLOSION.” A beautiful Black model struts her stuff down the runway wearing Yves Saint Laurent…the Picasso evening dress to be exact.
The dress boasts beautiful power colors of red, blue and black, it’s a silk number, a one-of-a-kind, made from luxurious moiré taffeta and satin. The model makes it clear she’s the one in the dress, and you gasp and exclaim, “I want that dress!” That’s the way an Ebony Fashion Fair show made you feel all the way to the bridal finale: the haute couture wedding dress that made your jaw drop.
The Laurent dress, worth at least $30,000, presented a visage of perfection on the Fashion Fair runway. It enticed the audience with luxurious, multi-colored geometric and artistic shapes. The Laurent evening dress was one of 7,000 pieces acquired by Mrs. Eunice W. Johnson, the titan of fashion and beauty for the Johnson Publishing Company, co-owned by her husband John H. Johnson. Johnson Publishing Company was known for publishing Ebony and Jet magazines.
John Johnson once said they had to “beg, persuade, and threaten [for] the right to buy clothes.” The designers feared their clients’ reactions to seeing haute couture designs on Black models. This was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination. At that time, the skin color of the Fashion Fair audience outweighed the Johnsons’ purchasing power. Championing Black elitism and social uplift in spite of blatant racism, Fashion Fair traversed the country showcasing high fashion to the crème de la crème of Black society starting in 1958, with its final production in 2009.
“Mrs. Johnson was buying the best fashion of the time,” said Joy Bivins, director of Curatorial Affairs at the Chicago History Museum. “There are these wonderful pieces and stories connected to her. The whole idea of bringing high couture to the masses at these shows was really quite revolutionary.”
In 2013, Bivins was responsible for the curation of the Fashion Fair “Inspiring Beauty” exhibit, a multisensory fashion experience that featured sixty-seven dressed mannequins of color. The exhibit was developed by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. The exhibit is presented by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum. The International Arts & Artists organization in Washington, D.C. is responsible for the exhibit touring eight museums in the United States.
After the initial battles with racism, Mrs. Johnson eventually built privy business relationships with more than 100 designers in such cities as Paris, Rome, Milan, London, Tokyo and New York. She had a prowess for the dramatic and beautiful luxury of haute couture. Her close friendships with European couture designers like Laurent spanned five decades and showed African Americans the high life of fashion and beauty, while raising more than $55 million for charities.
Black people would wait all year to attend the Fair, brought to them by local sororities, fraternities, lodges or social groups. Each season was more exciting and spectacular than the prior. The show production featured a new fashion theme, garments, music and a fabulous commentator. For years, the charity fashion show was a mainstream cultural event with almost 200 shows per year in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Models thrilled audiences strutting the runway wearing Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Patrick Kelly, B. Michael, Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Burrows, and many more.
Since October 2014, the traveling “Inspiring Beauty” exhibit of 41 garments has been seen at seven museums including The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum in D.C. After the exhibition’s final stop in Raleigh, N.C. this fall, the exhibit will permanently retire at the Chicago History Museum and the Johnson Publishing Company. All the garments have appeared on the Fashion Fair runway from 1964 to 2009, and will be laid to rest for future exhibitions, not to be viewed any time soon.
“We hoped to communicate that these things are beautiful, luxurious, and fantastical, but really they were about furthering a vision about the best of Black life, which is what Ebony magazine was about,” Bivins said. “The fashion becomes a way of telling the story about Black aspiration. At the end of the day, I hope people see it and are wowed by it.”