Fashion Fair founder Eunice Johnson at work, 1970, Photo courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC
A spectacle of glamour and performance, the traveling fashion show grew out of the pages of Ebony
magazine (first published in 1945). Similar to the publication, the fashion event provided transformative images of African Americans as beautiful and successful. The show was far more than a display of fabulous clothes; it offered black women a vision of what they could wear and, ultimately, who they could be.
Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair opens October 28 at the NCMA. Tickets are on sale now.
In March 2013 the show was brought back to life by the Inspiring Beauty exhibition, premiering at the Chicago History Museum. Since then the exhibition has mirrored the original show by traveling to cities throughout the country, including Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Milwaukee. The NCMA exhibition opens October 28. Featuring 40 stunning ensembles—such as Yves Saint Laurent’s “Picasso” short evening dress, Erreuno’s tree ring–patterned day ensemble, and Guy Laroche’s men’s suit adorned with iridescent sequins—Inspiring Beauty includes works by designers such as Stephen Burrows, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Patrick Kelly, Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Bob Mackie, Alexander McQueen, b. Michael, Missoni, Jean Patou, and Vivienne Westwood.
Tilmann Grawe, Cocktail Dress, special order, fall/winter 2003–04. silk chiné taffeta, horn, plastic and glass beads, horsehair tubing, and plastic boning, appeared in Living It Up; Photo courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC
Emmanuel Ungaro, Bridal Gown, haute couture, fall/winter 1996–97, cotton/synthetic blend lace, embroidered silk, plastic “pearl” beads and sequins, and glass beads, appeared in The Great Fashion Mix; Photograph by John Alderson, © 2013 Chicago Historical Society
Founded by the Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company, the Ebony Fashion Fair attracted thousands of attendees across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean, eager to lay their eyes upon the latest trends in haute couture. These audiences, primarily African American women, were finally represented and included in the world of high fashion. Eunice Walker Johnson, co-founder of Johnson Publishing Company and director and producer of the event, had three primary goals: to present and celebrate a positive image of black life, to allow African Americans better access to an otherwise white-dominated industry, and to provide a platform for creativity and inspiration. During its 50-year run, the Ebony Fashion Fair consistently and avidly met each of these goals. Johnson successfully provided African Americans, particularly black women, with direct access to high fashion, shifting the notion that high fashion is exclusive to white audiences.
In addition to featuring pieces from the world’s top designers, the show paved the way for several up-and-coming black designers, including Stephen Burrows, Eric Gaskins, and b. Michael. Michael in particular was forever changed by the support of Eunice Johnson and the publicity the Ebony Fashion Fair provided him. Today his brand, b Michael America, is sold in Macy’s stores throughout the United States, and his designs have been worn by Cicely Tyson, Beyoncé, and Cate Blanchett.
Henry Jackson, Ball Gown, special order, 2005, west African woven cotton, synthetic tulle, appeared in Stylishly Hot; Photograph by John Alderson, © 2013 Chicago Historical Society
Presenting positive and celebratory images of black life was both a radical and a necessary act.
The Ebony Fashion Fair, as well as Ebony magazine, significantly influenced black culture in America, as well as the way in which African American women perceived themselves. At the time presenting positive and celebratory images of black life was both a radical and a necessary act. The civil rights movement was underway, and the demand for racial equality continued to intensify throughout the country.
Through her remarkable achievements, Johnson helped open the doors to possibility and change for African Americans. The Ebony Fashion Fair exemplified these efforts, considerably redefining rigid and constricting beauty standards. By using diverse models and promoting black designers, the show played a key role in empowering African Americans nationwide. Along with highlighting the show’s most iconic ensembles, Inspiring Beauty explores how the Ebony Fashion Fair redefined fashion, beauty, and empowerment.