In 1958, Eunice Johnson launched the first Ebony Fashion Fair, a revolutionary traveling runway show that raised money for charities and featured models of African-American descent. Today a legacy that spans over 50 years of her groundbreaking work is on display at the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York. The designs capture a visual journey in aspirational fashion trends that span from the 1960s to present day, featuring creations from designers like Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, and Christian Lacroix — but more than that, they capture a story of one woman's determination to change the mindset of an entire industry.
Beyond the breathtaking display of the creations, this exhibit tells both of the broader narrative of Johnson's mission, as well as touching on the impact she had on fashion and the lives of African-American consumers. When Johnson first created the Ebony Fashion Fair, borne of Ebony, the African-American lifestyle magazine that she named herself, there had never been people of African-American descent on the runway before. In fact, when Johnson tried to attend runway shows featuring the popular designers of the age, she was at first denied entry; even later, when Ebony Fashion Fair was so well-established that it was touring the country year round, people often refused to sit near her in shows she was permitted to attend.
It is this determination to overcome barriers that shines in the exhibit, highlighted by Johnson's personal motto "V.I.P.," which stands for Vision, Innovation, and Power. Vision emphasized the necessity of representation in the fashion industry — of giving African-American consumers the ability to see a reflection of themselves in art and making top-notch designers as aspirational and enjoyable to African-American audiences as they were to the audiences they intended to target. Innovation encapsulates Johnson's drive in persuading advertisers of the very real and powerful audience of consumers that the fashion industry was ignoring. And above all, Power represented the new frontier that Johnson's strides allowed for African-American designers and models to feature their own work — not just in making their designs and performances accessible on her own runway, but helping shift cultural attitudes toward their acceptance in larger media.
The exhibit itself features dozens of designs that Johnson showcased on her runway, ranging from decadent furs to glamorous evening gowns to eclectic pieces made of fabric and bone. Each mannequin is hand-painted with their own face, hairstyle, skin tone, and personality, emphasizing the individualism and rich difference within the culture that the fashion industry lumped together as one big "other" at the time. More than that, though, each mannequin seems to have its own story, contextualized by the piece they are wearing and how they present themselves.
The collection of 40 creations in the exhibit seems vast, but really is a very small curated selection that represents the span of 50 years that Eunice Johnson held the Ebony Fashion Fair, which ran consecutively from 1958 until a year before her death in 2010. It also features archival photos and footage that help contextualize the journey of the fashion show, from its early days to its perception as a cultural staple.
Eunice Johnson's strides in this industry spanned far beyond the revolutionary Ebony Fashion Show. She was also the first to market cosmetics to African-American women, the main force in convincing designers to use African-American models on their runways, and a primary influencer in Ebony's conception and publication. Her legacy lays not just in the cultural shift she was responsible for driving, but in the $55 million her work helped raise for civil rights groups, scholarships, and charitable projects.
The Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit will remain at the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester from January 31, 2016 to April 24, 2016. It will also feature special programs including a Gospel Brunch on select Sundays, lectures from the curators, and talks with authors. To learn more about the exhibit and how to attend, visit the Memorial Art Gallery's website.
Images: Emma Lord/Bustle