Ever since my daughter moved to Chicago almost two years ago, I have become a regular at the Chicago History Museum. Each time I visit, the museum has an exhibit that catches my eye. This last trip in March was no exception, because I had a chance to see the “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair.” The exhibit offers highlights from the yearly fashion shows put together by Eunice Johnson of Ebony magazine. The shows toured the country and raised money for African American charities and civic organizations.
Seeing highlights from the long history of the event gave me a real sense of what a visionary Eunice Johnson was. Not only did she seek out top European designers, she also featured the work of up-and-coming American talent. She helped make the careers of African American designers and models. Sensing the changing shapes of Americans’ bodies, she included runway fashions for plus sized women well before others even considered this step. Not only interested in women’s fashion, she also included clothes for men. You can find a full list of the exhibit’s contents here.
Some of the background photos and documentary clips featured in the exhibit made me want to know more about the Ebony Fashion Fair as a cultural phenomenon. The traveling event had two big goals—to raise money for African American causes and to inspire African Americans to make bold choices with their clothes. There is plenty of evidence that it fulfilled its first task—the African American press is full of announcements about how the show aided local hospitals, churches, and educational organizational. Success at the second goal is more difficult to document, however. Did audience members change their minds about fashion after seeing one of these shows? And what about the many older women in the audience? Did they find something new to wear?
I looked through scholarly data bases for work on the Ebony Fashion Fair and came up empty handed. This would be a wonderful topic for an enterprising researcher interested in the intersection of fashion, race, and community organizing.