My recent piece for the Morningside Park Chronicle Newspaper.
Eunice W. Johnson and her husband, publisher John H. Johnson, co-founded Black lifestyle magazine, Ebony. Eunice Johnson founded Ebony Fashion Fair in 1956, a feature in Ebony magazine that would evolve into a traveling fashion show bringing the latest in haute couture fashion to Black communities across the United States. The Chicago History Museum honors Mrs. Johnson and her massive collection of couture in Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair. It is now on exhibit through January 2014.
Eunice was often the only black buyer in the room on her trips to shop the Fashion shows in Europe. She didn’t necessarily gain entrance very easily. Johnson represented an invisible affluent black population able and willing to wear the best fashions. Unfortunately they were hindered by limited access to high fashion, necessitating the traveling shows. They were glamorous shows in which comedians, singers and musicians took part.
However, the huge ensembles packed on to not-so-glamorous Greyhound buses. For the fashion troupes, it was fashion democratized right down to its essence.
Oscar De La Renta credits Johnson for being the first fashion show producer to put music on the runway. In the midst of segregation, Mrs. Johnson brought top European designers of the season like Yves Saint Laurent, Halston and Christian Dior to black Americans. In the course of it, she altered perceptions and inspired designers like Emilio Pucci to cast black models in their shows.
Being a part of Fashion Fair was a brave endeavor and not without risk.
As the civil rights movement—and reactions to it— grew, the Greyhound busses were often met by Ku Klux Klan members; race riots were the occasional result. The fashion shows were hosted by sororities, churches and the like, and the models and performers were often put up in private homes when denied access to hotels. Mrs. Johnson’s mission of bringing high fashion to Black America was a model in grass roots organizing.
The Fair gave back to the community raising $55 million dollars for charities over its duration. As time progressed she made it a priority to feature great black designers like Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly.
By the 1970s Mrs. Johnson had started Fashion Fair Cosmetics in response to the challenges her models were having with finding the right makeup for their skin color.
Bringing the latest in European fashion to black Americans on black models told black women that we deserved luxury, were capable of having it and as museum exhibit co-curator, Joy Bivins told W Magazine, “You are your own beauty standard.”
I call that nothing less than revolutionary for fashion and society, in 1958 or today.
I think it’s time for a trip to Chicago.
All images in this post are readily available on the Internet and believed to be in public domain.