BY NHUNG NGUYEN
The Ebony Fashion Fair was a revolutionary African American fashion show that originally debuted in 1959 in Chicago, then later, was hosted at Mount Mary University for four years. Now 50 years strong, the Fashion Fair is being honored with an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum called Inspiring Beauty, ongoing until May 3.
While celebrating the 50 years of Ebony, Mount Mary also celebrates the 50th anniversary of its fashion department. Fashion design students created garments using inspiration from the designs showcased in the Inspiring Beauty exhibition.
During a time when society did not see beyond black and white, Eunice Johnson, founder of the Ebony Fashion Fair, rose up and changed the nation. Unlike most fashion shows where garments are borrowed from top fashion houses, Johnson deliberately sought out these top designers and purchased their garments instead. This was her way of showing America that she was a strong and educated black business woman and was able to afford clothing from top designers. Her black models cascaded down the catwalk in these bold, flashy fashions and proved women of color were more than just the color of their skin.
The Ebony Fashion Fair was a traveling fashion show that made its debut in the fall 1959 and continued until the spring 2009. Johnson’s fashion shows emerged from Chicago and moved coastal across 180 cities. During this journey, Johnson’s shows featured African American models in top European fashions, showing America that black can also be beautiful.
Over time, the traveling fashion shows raised more than $50 million for African American organizations and charities.
Almost 50 years after the Chicago debut, Inspiring Beauty was launched at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This was the first exhibition to celebrate Johnson and her 50 years as director of the Ebony Fashion Fair. Camille Morgan, a curator for the Milwaukee Art Museum, joined forces with Joy Bivins, the exhibition developer, and their three-year production flourished into Inspiring Beauty.
There are 80 of Johnson’s original pieces on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum for the Inspiring Beauty exhibition. Morgan positioned the pieces to balance color and to keep the audience focused on the garments. In doing so, Johnson’s story is told seamlessly throughout time.
Morgan describes Johnson’s eye for style as very unique and avant-garde with details such as fur, sequins and bold colors. While these details are seen as common in today’s fashion, the intricacy of her details expressed a more complex message.
According to Morgan, back in the day, African Americans were unable to wear bright colors due to others’ concerns that they drew too much attention. Johnson wanted to break those barriers. Johnson gave African American women a new image that celebrated the richness of bold colors on their dark skin and allowed the women to gain confidence.
With her collection, Johnson created a polished look, incorporating pieces of a full ensemble. Picture a tailored three-piece garment, equipped with a fur-lined ivory pea coat, with a matching fur hat.
“For her [Johnson], dressing well was a point of survival as it was for blacks at a socioeconomic level in society,” Morgan said.
Inspiring Mount Mary
Sandi Keiser, chair of the fashion department, explained the initial connection between the Ebony Fashion Fair and Mount Mary’s Fashion Department, which established the first four-year fashion program in the country.
“In 1996, 1998, and 2001, Mount Mary hosted the Ebony Fashion Fair on campus,” Keiser said. “We also purchased 34 Ebony garments at auction to add to our Historical Costume Collection.”
Thirteen of the 34 designs are on display in Inspiring Beauty at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
“It was pretty exciting to get designers like Vivienne Westwood and Anna Sui,” Keiser said. “Those are brands that aren’t carried in Milwaukee.”
The designs on display inspired students at Mount Mary to create their own garments using elements from one of the 13 Ebony pieces.
Inspiration: Anna Sui garment featured at the Art Museum from the historic costume collection.
“When I designed it, I was not really thinking about the inspiration garment,” Judy said. “I was thinking of my fiancé’s 16 year old sister, Aimee. She is super quirky and pairs very odd things together. I wanted to design a dress that reflected her youth, quirk, and girly glamour side.”
Description of garment: Dupioni silk (shell) with accents of Swarovski crystals that were donated to the school.
Inspiration: A piece that was designed by Thierry Mugler featured in the Ebony Fashion Fair and part of the historic costume collection on campus.
Description of garment: “I created a 2-piece suit,” Sybesma said. “I used a wool crepe fabric for the body of the design and created/machine knit wool yarn for the panels on the side of the skirt, back of the jacket and also for the neck piece and wristlets. The jacket has a knit inset in the back with decorative buttons. It also has a decorative collar/lapel that is only on the front of the jacket. Both pieces are fully lined.”
Pictured above is the Theirry Mugler design (left) and Sara Sybesma modeling her inspired garment. Photographer: Cate Hrobsky
Pa Kou Vang
Inspiration: Thierry Mugler’s white tailored wool coat with a draped shawl and sheriff badge.
“My attraction to Mugler’s work was almost instantaneous,” Vang said. “It was as if somehow I could feel the connection of our design aesthetics. The cut of his jacket reminded me of the contour of the walking dresses of the 1890s with its nipped waist and amplified hip appearance. That became the focus of my inspiration. It was elegant and simple, yet modernistic with its distinctive shape.”
Description of garment: “The suit blazer was constructed with an emphasis on a defined structure,” Vang said. “The base of the jacket utilized the direction of a pile fabric with raised texture to draw attention to the multiple pieces that shaped the silhouette. Matte black satin underline the inner disposition of the blazer’s drama. Complementing the blazer is a full chiffon skirt that added volume to the form of the whole look.
Inspiration: Designer Richard Tyler to create a garment that was for every occasion.
Description of garment: “The black matte ponte knit skirt features horizontal rows of hand-fashioned pin tucks while a black knit bandeau peeks out from beneath the flowing chiffon jacket,” Peppers said. “Gold brocade accents the jacket lapels while the hand-finished edges of the chiffon demonstrate fine craftsmanship. This creative mix of fabrics add texture and an appealing spotlight look.”
Pictured above is the Richard Tyler designer with Dasia Davis modeling Shala Pepper’s inspired garment. Photographer: Cate Hrobsky
Pictured to the (right) is designer Shala Peppers photographed by Paul Calhoun.
Pa Chang Her
Inspiration: Douglas Hannat’s two-piece gray and pink garment that is featured in the Ebony Fashion Fair and Exhibit.
Description of garment: “Chiffon Pink and red dip-dyed fabric, with nine slits halfway up the dress finished it with a rolled hem, and adding Swarovski brooch as an accent piece to bring out the garment’s elegance,” Her said.
View the slideshow below for images of garments at the Inspiring Beauty exhibit at Milwaukee Art Museum on display through May 3. Mount Mary students are able to attend the exhibit for no cost with a valid school ID.
Photo credit: Nhung Nguyen