50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair
The traveling fashion show known as the Ebony Fashion Fair presented haute couture garments in venues ranging from high school gymnasiums in small towns to grand ballrooms in large cities. The audiences, primarily middle and upper-middle class African-American women, thrilled at the extravagant clothing, over-the-top presentation and sense of community created through this annual shared experience. Produced by Ebony magazine and directed for much of its run by Eunice Walker Johnson, the Ebony Fashion Fair grew from traveling to about thirty cities the first year to over one hundred eighty at its height. During its fifty-year history approximately eighty-five hundred garments appeared on its runways, of which about thirty-five hundred survive in the Johnson Publishing Company’s Ebony Fashion Fair archive. The collection consists of remarkable examples of twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century clothing, and documents an exciting intersection between high fashion and the African-American experience.
Joy Bivins, curator at the Chicago History Museum, and Virginia Heaven, assistant professor in fashion studies at Columbia College, working with Linda Johnson Rice at Johnson Publishing Company, presented the original exhibition, with sixty-seven ensembles, at the Chicago History Museum in 2013 to early 2014 and produced a lavishly illustrated catalogue. For the next two years a slightly smaller version of “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” with forty garments, is traveling the country, with its first stop at the Museum of Design Atlanta, in a city that hosted the Ebony Fashion Fair from the early 1960s on.