The entrance to the Chicago History Museum Costume Council’s Inspiring Beauty: Fifty Years of Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition, 2013-2014. Photo credit courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
One could not help but be inspired by this amazing once in a lifetime exhibition featuring highlights from the extraordinary collection of garments amassed by Eunice Johnson. Mrs. Johnson’s taste level and vision for her fashion extravaganzas was without equal, and, in my opinion, won’t be duplicated. A true fashionista in the most positive way. Realizing that there weren’t elegant fashion shows for the African- American audience (she showed both women’s and men’s garments in the shows) prompted her to gather garments from all the important designers (and these included African-American designers) from all the major fashion markets. Haute Couture was of prime interest to her and you saw many examples in the exhibition. Imagine, if you will, an unknown person walking into the couture and ready-to-wear collections and purchasing, usually with cash!!!, an outfit from head to toe…hats, jewelry, shoes even tights, everything! I can tell you she didn’t remain unknown for long and many garments were created especially for the Shows. Quite often one of a kind pieces and most certainly, more often than not, garments that would become iconic. The Shows were taken across the US and the Caribbean and were shown in huge auditoriums, such as the former Medinah Temple and the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place both in Chicago or in small venues such as school gymnasiums or church halls. Millions of dollars were raised for African-American causes. Do not presume that the audiences were entirely made up of African-American ladies, and the audiences were mostly ladies, there were all ethnicities in attendance, myself included, everyone chic beyond belief. The audiences were a fashion show unto themselves! Who doesn’t love a fashion show…I say that but the Ebony Fashion Fair was so much more than a fashion show it was a triumph of music, dancing, beautiful models, commentary, they were like looking at a Broadway Show. Each show was themed and each showed a huge number of runs, going from day pieces to the most outlandish evening pieces seen anywhere. You were really in if you were invited to attend an afternoon get together at Ruth Edelman’s home and then transported to the Ebony Fashion Fair event. It was one of the highlights of the Chicago social season. I wish I had kept my programs they were amazing and many were on display at the exhibition along with a mock set up of Mr. Johnson’s Ebony publishing office and testimonials from designers and models. It was an in-depth investigation and presentation of a special time along with the beauty of the clothes.
Let me give you a Nena note here….usually when you present a fashion show, in my case, I often worked with merchandise from my store, Saks Fifth Avenue, and would do a “pull” from the entire store or we would feature a designer’s collection in its entirety, all of these garments went back to their source…the store or the vendor. In the Ebony Fashion Fair shows, ALL the garments were purchased and owned by Ebony, unheard of then and now (if you were getting clothes from a designer they were on loan)…and were either sold on site after the shows or kept in their archives. These archives are what were available to Joy Bivins and Virginia Heaven when they made their final selections, not an easy task by any means, for the exhibition.
Not the world’s best photo but here we are….Virginia Heaven and Joy Bivins the creative minds behind the exhibition flanking me, I was serving as President of the Costume Council at this time. Photo credit unknown, but taken with Nena’s iPhone.
The exhibition was in the plans for several years before it came to fruition and as in any exhibition, it takes a “village” to get it set up…from concept, to staging, to mannequin selections and on and on. Let’s first talk about the mannequins. The usual form for an exhibition is to use abstract mannequins, generic in feeling so they don’t distract from the actual garments being shown. Not so in this presentation, the mannequins became a huge part of the story. All were modeled after African-American women (a couple of male mannequins were also featured) using different skin tones, hair styles, and make-up. In Monday’s post on Gayle King, you might recall that she was in the Fashion Fair shows and her image was used for one of the mannequins and I included a photo of that mannequin, here it is again…..
Photo courtesy of Gayle King.
All the mannequins were made especially for the exhibition and many have traveled with it to various cities. Remember this collection was on loan to the Chicago History Museum which was unique unto itself…only done once before with the first Charles James exhibition when we used many pieces, along with our own James pieces, from The Brooklyn Museum Collection (now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s costume collection). In addition, it was realized, very early on, how special this would be and the need to expose it to other museums..so another first, one of our exhibitions that has had huge exposure across the country following in the footsteps of Mrs. Johnson creativity, perseverance and need to share beauty with everyone! Bravo Eunice and bravo to Linda Johnson Rice for giving her blessing and allowing CHM the opportunity to make this happen!
Not all the models in the Ebony Fashion Fair shows were sample sizes…here a “real woman” in a made to order gown from Bill Blass (A designer close to my heart and one I often worked with…more on him in an upcoming nenasnotes post!) Photo courtesy Chicago History Museum.
I don’t think one should have favorites but I chose several from the exhibition from designers I worked with over the years to share with you.
From Emanuel Ungaro, the piece as shown in the exhibition…..photo courtesy Chicago History Museum.
And on the stage, truly a work of art!. Photo credit unknown.
An iconic piece from an iconic designer, Christian Lacroix. Photo credit unknown.
Costume by Oscar de la Renta. Photo credit unknown.
A detail of the Oscar de la Renta costume.
A tongue in cheek garment by Patrick Kelly, always pushing the limits and creating imaginative garments. The “face” is all hand sewn buttons, his signature. I still have one of the buttons he gave me when he was in Chicago many years ago. He was a true talent and delightful to work with.
Back of the Patrick Kelly gown, more buttons, made especially for the Fashion Scandal show. Photo credit unknown.
Who else could it be….Bob Mackie, of course with all his drama perfect for the Ebony Fashion Fair shows and another favorite of Mrs. Johnson (this is the garment that I sponsored in the exhibition, I was thrilled!) Photo credit unknown.
A couple more Nena notes….I can personally attest to the graciousness of the Johnson ladies…I first worked with them when they were honored by The Fashion Group International of Chicago at a gala in the late 1980’s at a ball in the Guildhall of the Ambassador West Hotel (and again when we launched the Fashion Fair cosmetics collection at Saks Fifth Avenue, Chicago). Walter Payton served as MC (and, by the way, was quite nervous, I asked him why, he, after all, played football every Sunday before thousands of people, his answer…”I couldn’t really see them nor were they this close, and I didn’t have to speak!” For some unknown reason, the two of us were sitting on a small box near the podium having a conversation when this statement was made! He, along with the Johnsons, was an idol of mine!) We showed garments from the shows on risers at one end of the ballroom, they were pin spotted as the year that each had appeared in the shows was announced, very dramatic and quite effective.
It was a glamourous evening as was the Costume Council gala for the Inspiring Beauty opening night event. Guests came from all over and included Pat Cleveland, one of the Ebony Fashion Fair models. The decor by Tom Kehoe was extravagant, elegant and very unusual with orchids hanging upside down, different centerpieces, huge fringed chandeliers…it was breathtaking.
The finished tented ballroom on the grounds of the Chicago History Museum. Here you can see the king tables, each specially made for the event, as well as the smaller square tables. Small centerpieces down the center of the long tables and the upside down orchids encased in glass on the smaller tables. You can also see the drama of the fringed chandeliers.
Below, the room being set up.
Above photos taken by Nena with her iPhone.
I had the privilege of choosing whatever garments I wanted from the archives to put on “live” models as the guests entered the museum and on the staircase leading to the cocktail reception. I always feel it is best to show, whenever possible, on live models so you can see how the clothes work in “real” life, how they move, how the person wearing the garment reacts to it…etc.
Drama as you entered for the gala….the model is wearing one of my favorite pieces from the archives in front of the entrance to the museum which we had draped in a beaded fringe curtain.
Two images of models on the staircase leading to the museum’s second floor. Each model is holding a sign with the name of the designer and year of the show in which it appeared. Above photos taken by Bob Carl.
I hope you will indulge me, I don’t usually do “selfies” but wanted to include this photo taken by Bob Carl at the gala. I’m wearing a perforated gilded leather jacket and gold lamé pants from Oscar de la Renta, another of Mrs. Johnson’s favorite designers as well as mine, with a vintage necklace from one of my treasured designers, Adolfo.
An appropriate finale for this post! Photo courtesy the Chicago History Museum.
The current Costume Collection exhibition is Making Mainbocher…if you haven’t seen it rush and do it…if you have visited the exhibit go back and see it again, you won’t be sorry! I have written several posts on the exhibit so you should be familiar with it.
While you are there be sure to check out the new Chicago History Museum exhibition (it has nothing to do with fashion, but is quite incredible!) Spies, Traitors, and Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America. It just opened and had a fascinating review in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, April 20.