Yesterday I hiked to the Chicago History Museum (literally in the sense that I walked from DePaul to North and Clark in 80-some degree weather, dripping by the time I got there) to check out the 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit. Prior to visiting I had no concept of what the Ebony Fashion Fair really was, but the exhibit does a fantastic job providing the history of the traveling fashion show that Mrs. and Mr. Johnson, the founder of Ebony Magazine, began (in Chicago) in 1958. Considering the Chicago History Museum has, I believe, the second largest fashion (they might call it costume) collection in the United States they pulled out all the stops: Dior, Pucci, Givenchy, B Michael, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, and so on, all designs that had been worn over the years at the various shows.
But really the show’s not as much about the actual garments (although they’re gorgeous, for sure) as it is about the revolutionary step Mrs. Johnson took in empowering black women (and men) to see themselves as beautiful. She strove not just to show that black is as, or more, beautiful than white, but also representing the nuances of skin tone in these shows. Whether you had skin the color of coffee or caramel these fashion shows challenged the segregation of color through class and fashion, giving power to African Americans in a bold way within a segregated America.
The exhibition does an awesome job showing all of this. All the mannequins vary in skin tone and (sometimes) body type. The video in the last gallery played interviews from the models, commentators, and guests themselves relaying stories of the fun, emotional experiences the Ebony Fashion Show had across the country.
There is no photography allowed (although I found some on the internet!) but the show is up until next January, so if you’re in the area check it out for free. It’s mega cool.