By Wendy Donahue Chicago Tribune reporter
5:55 PM EDT, March 20, 2013
Comparing anything to Jackie Kennedy invites verbal abuse. But the shocking-pink title wall of the Chicago History Museum's new exhibit, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” generated the same charge of excitement I felt when I saw the “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” exhibit for the first time (New York), and the second (Washington), and third and fourth (Chicago).
From the first African-American mannequins, one wearing a vibrant Picasso-inspired Yves Saint Laurent dress and another in a peekaboo jersey gown from Stephen Burrows, the beauty and power of fashion come alive in this Ebony exhibit in a way that it doesn't on today's designer runways.
This is the museum's largest special exhibition to date, featuring 68 gowns and garments culled from thousands that appeared in the legendary Ebony Fashion Fair. Launched in 1958 and running until 2009, the road show brought high fashion to African-American audiences, on African-American models. It traveled to more than 180 cities annually at its peak, selling out venues such as the Hollywood Palladium Theater, presenting transformative images of African-Americans as affluent, accomplished and gorgeous. It elevated black models, designers, stylists and audiences while raising more than $55 million for various charitable causes.
The exhibit's impact isn't limited to the stunning survey of high-end fashion.
Opposite the hot-pink entry wall, a silent introductory video shows archival footage of models twirling down the Fashion Fair runways. No stony-faced waifs here — these shows were a boisterous display of fashion with added entertainment value. If a model had a voice, she sang down the runway; if she could skate, she might roll. Ebony Fashion Fair, like the magazine that inspired it, celebrated fashion in a way that neither blacks nor whites had ever seen or heard. Longtime show commentator Audrey Smaltz added to the energy by announcing each look from a director's chair on the stage.
The pioneer behind the show was Eunice W. Johnson, who with husband John H. Johnson founded Johnson Publishing Co. in 1942 in Chicago. In 1945, they launched Ebony magazine to chronicle black culture. Jet magazine and Fashion Fair Cosmetics came later.
An Ebony magazine page from 1958, blown up on the wall of the first room of the exhibit, announces the road show and recounts the preparatory trip to Europe by Eunice Johnson and Ebony fashion editor Freda DeKnight. Their description of the designs they scouted there reflects a scholarly regard for fashion and hints at Johnson's early grasp of its social potency.
In the second room, the right-hand wall mentions Johnson's well-to-do upbringing in Alabama, and describes her personal preference for businesslike shapes for day and sophisticated glamour for evening. Only one garment in the show is from her wardrobe, a simple cobalt blue Pauline Trigere dress and jacket that she wore to the opening of Johnson Publishing's building at 820 S. Michigan Ave. in 1972.
What Johnson bought for herself and what she bought for the show differed. She believed her audiences craved theatricality. The middle aisle of this second room displays an array of dramatic designs that became emblematic of the Ebony Fashion Fair, including a Jean Louis Scherrer cocktail ensemble pairing a skin-tight black leather pantsuit with a two-tone fur coat using fox, goat, mink and Persian lamb.
“She would put a striking yellow Saint Laurent or Dior gown on the darkest model,” recalls her daughter Linda Johnson Rice in an exhibit video. Such moves aimed to overturn old taboos against bold color on black skin, replacing them with the message: “There's nothing you can't wear. There's nothing you can't do,” Rice says.
Despite the fact many designers and retailers regularly lent clothes for fashion shows, Johnson encountered prejudice when trying to procure garments for the first Ebony Fashion Fairs. Resistance weakened when Johnson arrived in Paris carrying cash to pay in full upfront.
Access is a recurring theme across the exhibit — gaining it and extending it to others, museum curator Joy Bivins said.
Many of the garments, selected in consultation with Virginia Heaven, assistant professor of fashion studies at Columbia College Chicago, subtly convey black empowerment and pride. An Oscar de la Renta evening gown and coat from 2002-03 references North African textiles. An impeccably tailored mixed houndstooth suit by Bill Blass reflects Johnson's belief that “well-groomed glamour signaled success.”
“African-Americans have historically used clothing to signify personal dignity and identity even when both were denied by the larger society,” a placard reads.
Burrows, Rufus Barkley and B Michael were among featured African-American designers in the road show, some of whom petitioned Johnson to be included. Models were recruited through Ebony's pages and included Pat Cleveland and Richard Roundtree. (Men occasionally walked the runway as a crowd-pleasing companion to the women, often wearing color-coordinated designs.)
Based on audience demand, Johnson added denim looks and plus-size models to the mix, the latter often welcomed with uproarious approval.
Among the statement-making gowns is one that acclaimed African-American designer Patrick Kelly created for the 1986 show. Using buttons, Kelly crafted a cartoonish blackface applique on the front of the gown.
“The eyes and lips appear whimsical and fun but contain an edgier allusion to race,” the ID card reads. Referring to the show's theme for that year, and knowing that Johnson liked gowns that entertained both coming and going, Kelly added a message to the back: “I love fashion scandal.”
The bulk of the garments in the exhibit are from the 1970s onward, because an auction in the early years sold off that inventory, adding to the show's charitable element.
Johnson Publishing is planning a revival of the Ebony Fashion Fair in New York this year.
For now, perhaps the best perspective on its legacy is provided by a video voice-over of excerpts from John H. Johnson's biography, projected onto a conference-type table near the end of the exhibit:
“When my wife and I started the company in 1942, most images of blacks in the media were criminals and caricatures or, even worse, there were no images of African-Americans at all. I have always believed that a dream starts with a vision, an image. The story of Johnson Publishing Company is a testament to the idea that if you change what people see, you can change what they believe.”
‘Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair'
When: Through Jan. 5
Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.
Price: $14; 312-642-4600 or chicagohistory.org
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC