At a time when black women and blackness are either fetishized or objectified, the “Ebony Fashion Fair” is a reminder that black is (and was) beautiful before it was a coined slogan.
Beginning in 1958, the “Ebony Fashion Fair” toured over 180 cities making 46 stops in Milwaukee out of its 50-year run before ending in 2009. The Inspiring Beauty exhibit installed in the Milwaukee Art Museum features more than 100 ensembles and accessories, along with archival photographs, magazines and video footage.
The exhibit combines stunning and influential fashion with the enchanting story of the late Eunice Walker Johnson, wife of Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) owner John Johnson and director-producer of the fair, and the instrumental impact her fair had in black culture around the world. The traveling charity fashion show spanned the United States, Canada and the Caribbean raising over $50 million for different organizations, i.e. universities, hospitals, etc.
Assembled and curated by an all-black production staff, Johnson provided avenues for black designers, stylists, featuring black models of all shades and sizes in a world where blackness was nearly invisible. She brought style and sophistication to black audiences during times where racial discrimination affected every dimension of black life.
The tour showcased work from Valentino to Oscar de la Renta and others on black models. The Fashion Fair provided audiences with the opportunity to see grandeur and elegance projected by African American models. The show helped black women see color as something to be celebrated.
The exhibit is organized into three major thematic sections: vision, innovation, and power. The sections explore Mrs. Johnson’s creative force behind the fair, showcasing the vibrant and dramatic ensembles and examine the experimentation of designers who pushed the accustomed barriers of fashion.
This exhibit comes at perfect timing where magazines like Cosmopolitan use black women as “rogue gallery” figurines and Vogue lighten the Kerry Washingtons of the world on their covers or worse, television critics associate our Viola Davis’ as “less classically beautiful.”
Johnson reminds those that navigate through the exhibit that blackness is something to constantly be celebrated, that a black woman should regularly be seen and associated in the fashion industry. This exhibit is a reminder that we will not tolerate the industry considering us unconventional or not considering us at all. Black will always be beautiful.
“The Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” runs through May 3, 2015.