MODA celebrates 50 years of the Ebony Fashion Fair

Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion displays 40 ensembles from the annual event
Eunice Johnson (here in 1970) would send up to 200 high-fashion looks on tour each season.
Eunice Johnson (here in 1970) would send up to 200 high-fashion looks on tour each season.

Photograph courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company LLC

The Ebony Fashion Fair first came to Atlanta in the early 1960s, sponsored in part by the local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. It was a Sunday-best kind of event, the biggest to-do of the year for some.

Eunice Johnson and her husband, John, founders of Johnson Publishing Company and Ebony and Jet magazines, launched the annual fair in 1958. On runways across the country, they showcased the latest high fashion to African Americans every year until 2009, a year before Eunice’s death. This month MODA will host an exhibition by the Chicago History Museum, Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion (October 19-January 4), with 40 of these ensembles by designers like Missoni and Givenchy, plus films and other objects.

Of course, the fairs weren’t just about clothes. For African Americans, from big cities to small towns, they signaled empowerment and pride. Created during a time when Jim Crow still ruled the South, they provided the first meaningful platform for blacks in American fashion.

Eunice’s fairs also changed the standard of beauty for black women. “In those garments, African Americans could see reflections of themselves as glamorous, exquisite,” says curator Joy Bivins. “They were so much more than a pretty thing.”

Eunice brought notoriously exclusive Parisian haute couture to her audience, but she also provided opportunities for black models, stylists, makeup artists, and designers. She’d gladly put a relatively unknown black designer alongside international names like Christian Lacroix and Dior. One such designer was B. Michael, who’s since dressed Cicely Tyson and Beyoncé. More than one person has cited his “rainbow dress” as a show highlight.

“[The fairs] had an impact on our young people,” says Theresa B. Smith, who attended the Atlanta fairs for 40 years and served as chair from 2001 to 2004. “It inspired them—this was something they could do.”

As one of the first black customers of couture, Eunice was sometimes met stiffly. But, persuasive and impeccably styled, she knocked on the doors of the finest fashion houses in Europe until they opened. Her deep pockets didn’t hurt (in later years she spent as much as $1 million per tour on clothes), nor did her enlightened take on fashion as art.

“The exhibition shows design as a problem-solving process,” says MODA executive director Laura Flusche. “We want people to admire the beautiful garments, but we also want people to reflect on the way Ms. Johnson used fashion as a tool, a means to change the world.”

Designers report Johnson often chose the most complex, intellectual pieces from their collections. From left, garments by Hanae Mori, Patrick Kelly, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Hanae Mori (Japan), Evening ensemble, haute couture, fall/winter 2001-02; Corded silk, gold leaf, silk satin, metallic lace, chinchilla; Appeared in Changing Trends of Fashion; Photograph by John Alderson © Chicago Historical Society. Patrick Kelly (France), “I love Fashion Scandal” Evening dress, special order, fall/winter 1986; Wool knit, plastic buttons; Appeared in Fashion Scandal; Photograph by John Alderson © Chicago Historical Society. Yves Saint Laurent (France), “Picasso” evening dress, Haute couture, fall/winter 1979-80; Silk moiré taffeta and satin; Appeared in Color Explosion; Photograph by John Alderson © Chicago Historical Society.

This article originally appeared in our October 2014 issue under the headline “Style Statement.”