By Ariele Vaccaro
As the city moves into Black History Month, so will the Milwaukee Art Museum as it hosts a chic travelling exhibit called Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair.
The exhibit looks at late African American fashion designer Eunice Johnson’s work as creator and head of the Ebony Fashion Fair, which operated from 1958 through the new millenium.
Upon stepping out of the blinding white and bare neutrality of the art museum’s foyer and into the bright reds and bold blues of the exhibit, attendees might feel as if they’ve entered a portal into a 1961 issue of Ebony.
According to guest curator for the exhibit, Camille Morgan, that’s exactly the vibe she’s going for.
Visitors first entering the exhibit are greeted by a photo of Eunice Johnson, co-founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, working at a desk littered with drawings of potential dresses and ensembles, phone in hand, ready to call her next buyer.
It’s clear in her driven expression that she meant to enact change in the fashion industry for the better.
“She was able to create a new world where people were able to see themselves as beautiful too,” said Morgan.
Morgan encourages those touring the exhibit to think of a few things while checking out the myriad of day, evening and activewear.
One of those is to consider the relationship between race, capitalism, and desire.
During an era in which Black women were often excluded from the main stream fashion industry’s definition of “beauty”, Johnson’s fashion fair had indelible influence in bringing these three controversial elements together.
The show was ground-shaking move, made at a time when Black designers and models were creating their own, new makeup lines for darker skin hues and even dyeing hosiery with coffee.
Fashion activism: that’s what Morgan calls it as she stands next to a canary yellow, sequined cocktail skirt and top by Italian designer, Fausto Sarli.
In the exhibit, all of the mannequins are Black, and all are specially made for the exhibit. Each of the models gracefully pose in a piece that once bounced down the runway during a typical Ebony Fashion Fair show.
Usually, Johnson showed about 200 pieces in her show, made by any number of designs from France to Japan, and displayed by 13 stunningly beautiful Black models — two of which were always men. Among those models was Pat Cleveland.
She once wore a gown by fashion fair contributing designer, Valentino Garavani. That dress is on display at the exhibit right now.
Johnson was notorious for inviting lesser known fashion designers — like Patrick Kelly and Rufus Barkley — to show their pieces at the fair.
Those artists would eventually become household names in the fashion industry.
Luxe, color, and class embody many of the pieces that drape fluidly over the arms of the mannequins — some of which are plus size.
“In that model, you can see your mother, your aunt, your sister, or yourself,” said Morgan, noting that plus size models were no strangers to the Ebony Fashion Fair’s runway.
Other notable pieces sport purple fur, white ostrich feathers, carved bone, antenna-like tubing, and button lettering.
Even wedding dresses had a place in the exhibit. However, these weren’t the typical white gown. Rather, these dresses offered the same attractive intensity that one would expect from Johnson’s show.
Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair will be running at the Milwaukee Art Museum from Feb. 5 to May 3. Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and students with a student I.D. and are available online or at the door.