Fashion and Black History: Ebony Fashion Fair and the Ebony Fashion Fair Exhibit

The Inception

The traveling fashion show was made famous by Eunice Johnson, wife of John Johnson, who took over as fashion director after the passing of Gertude DeKnight. It transformed from a regular feature in Ebony Magazine (named by Eunice) into a charity event. The annual event that brought the who’s who out in each city it arrived in was a two hour show. Included in it were ready to wear, evening, swimwear, and bridal sections.

Eunice Johnson is the only African American at a salon fashion viewing. She’s also sitting front row, and area reserved for the most prestigious in the industry.

The Obstacles

When the Ebony Fashion Fair show began in the 1950’s, the Johnsons were were met with great opposition. Racial tension was high due to segregation, and they had to overcome obstacles such as finding hotels that will allow people if color to stay, convincing designers to allow Eunice into their salons for shows, further convincing them to allow her to purchase their pieces for her shows. Many were reluctant because they were concerned about how other patrons would react to high fashions on black bodies. As soon as one designer said yes, others followed suit and allowed their designs into the show. Photos of Eunice Johnson with a young Yves Saint Laurent, invitations for Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Christian Lacroix, Azzedine Alaïa, are encapsulated in the exhibit.

Eunice Johnson with Yves Saint Laurent.

Making History

Known to use her platform to catapult careers of African Americans, Mrs. Johnson hired black models, stylists, designers, and make up artists. She was also known to include designers of color such as B.Michael, and Stephen Burrows alongside Givenchy, Chloe, and Valentino. Models such as Iman and Pat Cleveland have ties to Ebony Fashion Fair. Model, Fashion Fair commentator, and the founder of The Ground Crew, Audrey Smalltz credits her transition into entrepreneurship to the Johnsons.

Eunice Johnson and a young model and fashion designer.

The Legacy

At it’s peak, Ebony Fashion Fair had traveled to more than 180 cities and crossed U.S. borders into Canada and even held shows in the Caribbean. The reason why it was started is often overshadowed, but it cannot go without mentioning. Over 50 million dollars were raised for charities and hospitals. The last show was in 2009, but it’s legacy lives on in the exhibit that now travels the country just as the fashion show did.

This article originally appeared on Diva Chroniclea January, 2015.

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