A visual narration of percipience and determination is taken directly from the chronicles of Eunice Johnson and her Johnson Publishing Company. Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition is presented by the Chicago History Museum until January 5, 2014. The retrospective, one of the museum’s largest, reviews the history of the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show.
As visitors cross a red carpet to enter the exhibition, they will survey more than 60 garments. The exhibit’s ambition is to give visitors the impression that they are attending an exclusive event while simultaneously acquainting themselves with Chicago, and an account in American and fashion history.
The museum highlights quintessential fashion from designers like Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro, Givenchy, Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Cardin to name a few. Eunice Johnson not only used European designers, but also supported young black designers such as Willi Smith, Patrick Kelly and B. Michael. The Chicago exhibit is an opportunity to show how fashion became a platform “for African-American empowerment, pride and achievement,” noted Chicago History Museum president, Gary T. Johnson.
With a flair for the glamorous, Eunice Johnson was a visionary and a lover of fashion. As the creator of Ebony and Jet magazine, Johnson opened the door to the world of fashion and promoted racial aspirations where there was not.
The Johnson Publishing Company introduced the world to the Ebony Fashion Fair in 1958. Over the course of its 50-year history, the show raised $55 million for African-American charities such as the United Negro College fund, and helped push the publishing company into the spotlight. During that time, organizers from the fashion fair had to rise above racial intolerance, to present “a new vision of black America” and rally to transform the black American middle-class.
Maxine Craig, professor of gender studies at the University of California, Davis, remarked that Johnson was not the first person to introduce high fashion to the black middle-class. However, she stated that Ebony gave black readers a sense of hope and confidence. Readers were able to envisage where they could go with images such as black models clutching Pan Am carry-ons, even though airlines would not hire black flight attendants. Craig said that while haute couture may not attainable, style was within reach, and it was within the women’s rights to have it.
Across the country, from coast-to-coast, European haute couture inspired and changed the lives of black women on both sides of the runway. The traveling show went from city venues to schools, all over the country including the “Jim Crow South.” When tensions were high on some of their destinations, the name, Ebony Fashion Fair, was taken off the bus so not to draw attention to the models and their cause.
Johnson and the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair was making history with every stopover. Linda Johnson Rice, Johnson Publishing CEO and Eunice Johnson’s daughter, in a memoir written by her father, John H. Johnson, said that when they started out, Eunice Johnson had to plead and sway European designers to sell their haute couture to black women, but their mindsets changed. Johnson’s impetus was to demonstrate that there was “no barrier to black beauty.”
After combing through 3,500 pieces of Johnson’s collection archives, Joy Bivens, the Chicago History Museum curator, and Virginia Heaven, consulting costume curator, assembled the clothes for the retrospective.
Staged in three parts, the show begins with Vision, and looks at the role that Eunice Johnson played as the creative force behind the event. It also studies color implementation, and how it communicated beauty, and the female body.
The second segment explores, Innovation, using media installations to examine the “boldness and experimentation” of the Johnson company including methods, stylization and contour. It also looks at Ebony Fashion Fair’s reaction as to what influences youthful audiences.
The last portion of the exhibit entitled, Power, reveals the beauty, opulence and showmanship of the dynamic visual experience that visitors came to know from Bob Mackie, Alexander McQueen, Halston and Karl Lagerfeld among other designers.
Eunice Johnson’s Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair has found an ideal venue among one of the largest and historically significant costume collection worldwide until the exhibition tours nationally, which the event’s sponsors anticipate that the fair may once more inspire another Ebony Fashion Fair.
By: Dawn Levesque