"Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair" at the Chicago History Museum | Review
"Welcome to the Ebony Fashion Fair…Audrey is my name and fashion is my game," greets Audrey Smaltz, the show's legendary commentator from 1970–1977, via a recording at the entrance to "Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair." The Chicago History Museum's latest exhibition is a tribute to the Johnson Publishing Company's traveling charity fashion show established in 1958 by director-producer Eunice W. Johnson, wife of publisher John H. Johnson, who founded Ebony and Jet magazines. The iconic city-trotting event introduced the world of haute couture to everyday black people in the U.S. and raised millions of dollars for various organizations.
Much like Parisian designer Tilmann Grawe's featured cocktail dress of bead-capped rods covered in fabric and attached to a hand-carved buffalo harness, Smaltz's address is dramatic and spunky. Her prelude is a good precursor for what lies ahead inside the 7,000-square-foot space, and matches the Fair's well-known theatrics—exaggerated hip-swaying catwalk routines from models strutting in over-the-top costumes. Scenes of this unique runway choreography are viewable on a colossal flat-screen monitor at the exhibit's admission.
On display are nearly 70 high-fashion and ready-to-wear garments and accessories from high-profile U.S., European and Japanese fashion houses including standout glittering bold ensembles, like the Emanuel Ungaro rainbow-colored crochet outfit with hot pants and matching knee socks and Pierre Cardin's five-tiered-sequined turquoise gown, to subtly-chic designs—a royal blue day dress by Pauline Trigere and Fausto Sarli's beaded yellow cocktail skirt. All knockouts. All luxurious. But perhaps most significant, all purchased by Johnson for a couple reasons: She could afford to buy the outfits and many designers wouldn't donate their clothing to the black fashion fund-raiser.
As curator Joy Bivins has reiterated lately and in this article, "They are more than pretty things."
You'd be hard pressed to not gush and rave over the pieces. On opening day this past weekend, I found myself oohing and ahhing at the flamboyant men's apparel, exotic-feathered headdresses and floor-length furs and gowns on the custom-made mannequins. By the way, these life-size dolls are impressive representations highlighting different skin complexions, hair textures and styles, and shapes (There's one with a curvy full figure). But to fully comprehend how the game-changing fashion show empowered blacks and opened doors for many including black fashion models, hairstylists and designers, visitors must pause from gawking and watch the exhibit's three video presentations featuring firsthand accounts and commentary from ground-breaking fashion model Pat Cleveland, Fair hairstylist Johnny Wright and Audrey Smaltz.
One of the most profound video excerpts to capture the Ebony Fashion Fair's revolutionary impact within black culture and the fashion industry comes from Johnson's daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who concludes an interview segment with, "Long before the '60s, my mother coined the phrase 'Black is beautiful.'"
Inspiring Beauty is open through January 4, 2014.