Dressed to Impress
BY MADELINE NUSSER March 13, 2013 5:14PM
Chicago History Museum curator Joy Bivins gives a sneak preview tour of the new Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit, featuring evening gowns, on Thursday, March 7, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
‘INSPIRING BEAUTY: 50 YEARS OF EBONY FASHION FAIR’
♦ March 14-Jan. 5, 2014
♦ Chicago History Museum,
101 N. Clark
♦ Tickets (included in general admission): $14; seniors and students, $12; kids 12 and under free
♦ Visit www.chicagohistory.org/inspiringbeauty
♦ Gallery online: see more groundbreaking Ebony fashions at
Updated: April 16, 2013 3:21PM
In a black and white photo, a pixie-ish model fluffs up her New Look-style housedress mid-jaunt down a runway; a sea of impeccably coiffed heads turn toward her.
A famous 1950s supermodel?
“Not exactly,” says Chicago History Museum curator Joy Bivins. “Modeling agencies didn’t really have black models at the time.”
But if one woman could — and did — change all that, it was Chicago’s Eunice Johnson, a force behind Ebony magazine and producer of its traveling show, Ebony Fashion Fair.
Johnson gets feted in the exhibit “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” opening March 16 at the Chicago History Museum. The museum’s largest temporary exhibit, it rings in around 7,000 square feet. Videos and photos — like the one of the fresh-faced model, plucked out of Ohio by Johnson — join nearly 70 ensembles: bead-covered, fur-laden, hand-stitched garments that once pranced the catwalk in the Ebony Fashion Fair, which ran from 1958 until 2009.
Johnson sourced the best European and U.S. fashion houses. Treasures on display: A 1988-89 Pierre Cardin haute-couture hooped contraption blanketed by aqua-colored sequins; Emanuel Ungaro’s knit hot pants and matching knee-highs from 1971-72. Every garment stands out; none resemble the flimsy jersey blobs dominating today’s mass-manufactured fashion market.
It’s hard to imagine, but this record-breaking display is a small fraction of the entire Ebony Fashion Fair archive.
“We narrowed thousands of garments down to 400, and down again to 67,” says Bivins, recalling the curation process, which began after Johnson died in 2010.
At its height in the mid-1980s, the fair traveled to 187 cities. It was a package deal: If a group in Tulsa, Okla., or East Orange, N.J., could secure a venue — a theater, auditorium or even a high school gym (the exhibit features pictures of all three) — the fair sent a bus packed with garments and models. Proceeds could be used for charity.
“Mrs. Johnson liked to reference Itta Bena, Mississippi,” says Bivins about the small city-reach of the show. “One purpose of the show was to bring exclusive fashions to Ebony and Jet readers — expose them to ideas from all over the world.” It also put “black people in these fashions — rare or impossible to find in Vogue or [Harper’s] Bazaar.”
The exhibition’s artful, custom-built mannequins reflect that diversity: Every Ebony Fashion Fair included differently hued models posing in daywear, eveningwear, swimwear and a bridal finale. Curators composed each display to mirror a show’s lineup, including pieces such as a bouffant, flower-flecked Ungaro bridal gown from 1996-97. But no swimsuit remains unblemished — no thanks to the vast number of quick costume changes the road show required.
“We needed a lot of conservationists,” says Julie Katz, museum registrar and the exhibition’s project manager. A team of conservators labored for nine months. Fluffs of ostrich hair and rows of teal sequins reap the fruits of their labor.
Groupings of outfits stand on curvilinear platforms backed by an array of purples and metallics — occasionally noisy scenery that clashes with the garments’ pored-over handwork. It’s no wonder Ebony allowed this show to hit the makeshift runway in a high school gym — there’s enough flair in each ensemble to compensate for a world of old bleachers and scuffed-up hardwood.
The museum’s wall assemblages feature brochures, pages of Ebony and images of early 1950s shows. Bivins says she sorted through massive magazine archives for research and to find exhibit-worthy ephemera. “It became about interpreting the fashion in a historical context. We always tried to keep a connection to the publication — providing context to what people are seeing.”
While Johnson Publishing Co. archives contain records of Johnson’s impressions of designers, the exhibition errs by omitting thoughts about Mrs. Johnson from designers, who no doubt depended on Johnson’s keen eye, luxe tastes and deep pockets. Those indebted to her might include French designer Ungaro, whom she supported since his house’s founding; the first black and first official American couturier, late designer Patrick Kelly; and the late Bill Blass and Halston, early proponents of black supermodels.
Still, this exhibit well serves fashion fans, giving them the chance to gape at Johnson’s unmatched vision. But, according to Bivins, regular people are at the heart of the show: “The garments oozed affluence, symbolized accomplishment and success,” she says. “It was about, ‘Could I do that?’ ” Bringing fashion, against all odds, to Itta Bena, Miss., Johnson transformed it into something much greater than sequins and lace.
Madeline Nusser is a local freelance writer.