Despite the institutional prejudices that held them back, “African-American women have always loved fashion, and they want to look good, too,” Edwards says. And scenes from her grandmother’s ad-hoc dress shop would become her earliest memories in her lifelong fascination with wearable art.
Those scenes of Jim Crow-era prejudice, however, stand in sharp contrast with another, more inclusive fashion event that began just a few years earlier.
In 1958, Eunice Johnson and her husband, John Johnson, owner and founder of African-American-focused Ebony and Jet magazines, started producing a traveling fashion show that made annual stops in Milwaukee until 2008. Months later, the touring shows ended entirely.
The shows featured only black models, who wore the finest couture from American, French and Italian designers. The models also wore makeup specifically designed for their skin color – something that’s remarkable considering the term “nude” is still, even today, typically associated with Caucasian skin. And when the show was in its early years, mainstream fashion magazines weren’t employing black models at all, and papers like the Milwaukee Sentinel still had women’s sections devoted exclusively to cooking, family and fashion.
Life on the traveling show’s circuit was anything but easy for Eunice Johnson and her models. And things weren’t any easier for Johnson in Europe. In those first few years, she would fly to Milan and Paris to purchase outfits directly from the designers, and was often told, in no uncertain terms, no.
Despite this, the show was an annual success in Milwaukee’s African-American and fashion-loving communities, and the shows were a natural fit given the city’s status, in the 1950s and ’60s, as a hub of textile manufacturing. Now, Milwaukee will get the opportunity to relive the Johnsons’ progressive contributions to fashion when the Milwaukee Art Museum hosts “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.”
Camille Morgan, guest organizing curator of the exhibit, says Johnson “was really brave” for taking the risks she did to bring fashion to those who were barred from its upper echelons.
The Ebony Fashion Fairs are “an American success story,” Morgan says. Black stories are American stories, she says, and “it’s important that people see that.”
For women and men like Edwards, the exhibit will have profound meaning. As early as age 10, her grandmother and mother took her to Ebony shows, and she witnessed clothing unlike anything she’d seen before. Models sashayed down the runway to hoots and hollers from the crowd, who were, each and every year, dressed to the nines.
Proceeds from the show’s ticket sales went to the charity organizations that partnered with the Johnsons to host them.
One such organization was the Cream City Links, an African-American women’s scholarship and community service group, which co-hosted the fashion show at the Pabst Theater and on Mount Mary’s campus for its final 13 years in Milwaukee.
Edwards, who is now chapter president of the Links, thinks that the Milwaukee Art Museum exhibit will help the current crop of young fashion lovers “understand that they may look at fashion magazines and see fashion in New York and Los Angeles – and even Chicago – and they’ll see we had great fashion right here in Milwaukee.”
Inside the Mind
How one international design made its way to Milwaukee.
➞ Katherine Stephens owns a custom dressmaking shop in Shorewood called the Sophisticated Rose and earned a certificate in fashion design from Mount Mary in 2006. She then headed east to serve as an intern for British designer Tomasz Starzewski. While he’s not a household name stateside, his designs have been worn by Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher; think of him as the Oscar de la Renta of the U.K. During her time at the house of Starzewski, Stephens often labored over dresses with intricate beadwork stitched into delicate chiffon, and feathers that fluttered in colorful waves. One such design is a cerulean blue number with a chiffon overlay, which is covered with beading and cascading blue feathers. The gown appears flapper-esque with an outsized personality to match, and the craftsmanship is outstanding. That year, Stephens helped craft a red version of the dress for a wealthy Hong Kong buyer, and the design’s original blue version appeared in the Ebony Fashion Fair in the mid-aughts. In 2013, Mount Mary purchased the gown – and many others – when the Fair’s immense collection was put up for auction. Mount Mary’s collection of Ebony Fashion Fair pieces will have its own section in the art museum’s exhibit, but this dress will be the pièce de résistance for at least one local aficionado.