50 years of Ebony fashion comes to GWU museum


The exhibit at the George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum will run through July 24. (Photo courtesy of William Atkins)

“The Power of Color,” reads the title on the front page of an issue of Ebony Magazine from 1995.

The magazine, along with hundreds of other Ebony Magazine covers that span the last 50 years, adorn the walls at the George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum as part of the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition that runs through July 24.

The museum’s curator of contemporary art, Camille Brewer, first saw the exhibition in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2014, and knew this was a story worth telling.

“The fashion show was a big deal in D.C., you know,” Brewer said. “I thought this could introduce a cultural history to a new generation.”

Givenchy, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta and Christian Dior are some of the top-name designers whose original work for the Ebony Fashion Fair are featured in the exhibition. The real crowd-pleasers, however, are the works of Patrick Kelly, B Michael, Henry Jackson and Stephen Burrows, the black designers of fashion.

Eunice Johnson created the Ebony Fashion Fair in the 1950s as a fundraiser for a hospital in New Orleans. The show was the first to feature black models and designers, and to adorn black models in European fashion icons’ designs.

“Dark skin was rarely celebrated,” Brewer said. “Eunice Johnson wanted different fabrics and bold colors. She wanted to show black women that color was for them.”

And that it did.

Shayla Simpson was fortunate enough to be one of those models. Little did she know that visiting her brother in Chicago would be one of the most fortuitous decisions she ever made.

“We were touring the Ebony building when one of the editors saw me and said, ‘You need to see Mrs. Johnson,’ and gave me an application to model,” Simpson said.

But when Simpson decided to apply that first year, she called to see about her application and discovered she was too late. So she tried again the following year.

According to Simpson, the phone operator said, “I’ve been looking for you. You had called last year and I loved your voice, but I didn’t have your number to call you back.”

Simpson returned to Chicago the next day to meet with Eunice and John Johnson, and was added as the 11th model in the Ebony Fashion Fair show.

“When they walked in, you knew they were models,” said Claudia Watts, management analyst for the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, who had the opportunity to meet some of the models from the original show at the exhibition’s opening.

The Anacostia Community Museum and the Textile Museum have partnered for the Ebony exhibition, holding events and panel discussions alongside the displays.

Watts feels fortunate to have seen one of the last Ebony Fashion Fair shows in 2008.

“I had seen other shows, but nothing like this,” Watts said. “My parents tried to instill a strong sense of self-image, and to see that played out in front of me was a very empowering feeling that, yes, black is beautiful.”

Simpson said that same sense of empowerment channeled into her later career as lead commentator for the Ebony Fashion Fair, a role that involved assisting Eunice Johnson in attending other fashion shows, choosing clothing, hiring models, fitting and, of course, commentating during the live performances.

Being the only two black women in a sea full of white didn’t seem to bother Simpson or Johnson when they attended other fashion shows.

“Eunice was a pistol,” Simpson said. “She literally knocked down the barriers. Imagine this African-American woman coming to Europe to buy clothing to put on black models, in a black magazine. … They rejected her in the beginning, but she was determined.”

Simpson said Eunice Johnson’s determination was inspiring and taught her to never take no for an answer.

“There was this one European designer that refused to let us in to see his show for years, and wouldn’t let us buy,” Simpson said. “So one year we stood outside the doors forever and she told me, ‘Shayla, this is what it takes.’” As soon as the doorman turned his head, she bolted in the door and dragged Simpson after her, throwing an unwavering look over her shoulder at the guard.

“The next year,” Simpson said, “they sent us an invitation.”

Marcia Baird Burris, a public affairs specialist at the Anacostia Community Museum, believes the exhibition will give younger generations a glimpse into what the Ebony Fashion Fair was like.

“I really appreciate the varying hues in the skin tones in the mannequins that are made to look like the models,” Baird Burris said. “They all have different shades and tones, and lip sizes and noses, and it’s nice to see that as an African-American woman.”

The Ebony Fashion Fair was one-of-a-kind during its 50-year reign, exposing black fashion to the world — and the exhibit continues its legacy by demonstrating that black truly is beautiful.