(Updated 9/27/2016) In a pivotal moment, my head swirls with thoughts of a perfectly fitted gown, boasting of silk fabric, dripping with handmade, three-dimensional pink roses and green leafy vines. I visualize a princess twirling at a debutante ball in the moonlight, and it takes my breath away. I’m envious of the girl that wore this couture, low-back gown, under layered in tulle. I’m ready to have a hush-hush conversation about the gown and the designer, yet I’m left to gaze upon the wearer, a finely fitted mannequin. “It’s an Ann Lowe,” the mannequin whispers to me. “You know, the legendary African American fashion designer. Ann Lowe designed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s wedding gown.” As a tear drops down one cheek, I know that “The Best Dressed” is in town, and she’s holding it down at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
NMAAHC, established by Congress in 2003, is dedicated to the exclusive documentation of African-American life, art, history and culture. The massive building, wrapped in ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, is located at 1400 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. NMAAHC will celebrate its opening with festivities on the National Mall, Sept. 23-25.
Dr. Lonnie Bunch, founding director, has captured the American spirit through the eyes of African-American history, rich with the esoteric effects of slavery, torture, rebellion, education, evolution and triumph. Several collections at NMAAHC explore the history of the American South, civil rights, clothing and dress, arts, slavery, music, religion, military and more. NMAAHC has ensured that fragile, yet boastful nostalgia is fixed in time by the zeitgeist of African-American history.
Fashion connoisseurs who visit the museum will be thankful to Lois K. Alexander Lane, founder of the Black Fashion Museum (BFM), now housed in NMAAHC. BHM donated more than 3,000 pieces of memorabilia, including costumes and gowns. “It’s about time,” Joyce Bailey, Lane’s living heir, told me. “It is definitely about time for us to have a museum that showcases the contributions of people of African descent to the United States as well as the world.”
Fashion lovers can now examine couture and costumes created by African-American designers such as Ann Lowe, couture designer for the Social Register; Judy Dearing, costume designer for “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf;” Mae Reeves, milliner for superstars Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Marian Anderson; and Vanilla Beane, milliner that designed hats for Dr. Dorothy Heights.
But as fashion aficionados peruse NMAAHC, they will relish in rapper’s delight when viewing hip-hop outfits that made fashion future. The museum showcases a pair of original Adidas shell toe sneakers worn by Run-D.M.C., a fashion statement that made them icons with a major endorsement deal. NMAAHC also has a hat, leather jacket and pants that was worn by rapper Rakim and designed by Dapper Dan, an African-American fashion designer known for his over-the-top street style luxury.
My journey through the artifacts personally affected my life and style. As I eased on down the NMAAHC road, I viewed the original costumes from the 1975 Broadway musical “The Wiz,” designed by Geoffrey Holder, African-American dancer and designer. As a Dunham technique dance student, I met Mr. Holder once, and talked with him deeply about dance and theatre.
Journeying through NMAAHC can also lead you to “White House” style. Our first lady, Michelle Obama has graciously shared the black and red floral frock designed by Tracy Reese, another African-American fashion designer. “Tracy Reese does not make you apologize for being a woman,” said Dr. Renée Anderson, head of NMAAHC collections. The recipient of a bachelor’s degree of fine arts in clothing and textiles from Virginia Commonwealth University also told me, “I love that dress, it makes me want to giggle when I see it.”
All this and more is available to be seen at NMAAHC. Get your tickets and visit the museum with me. Ciao!