“Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” now installed at Bellevue Arts Museum, is about more than clothes. It’s the story of Eunice W. Johnson, who opened the fashion world to African Americans — as designers, models and consumers.

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A shower of sequins descends down the back of a halter gown, sparkling like water in sunshine. Nearby, a striped pouf of a skirt winks playfully below lace cuffs and a hot-orange wraparound top. Around the corner, a cloud of tulle bursts out from a sleeveless ballgown made of stripe-printed West African cotton. Whirl your head and spot a gloriously ’80s red-and-pink feather ensemble; take a few steps and savor a simple, stunning rainbow of a gown.

“Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” a touring exhibit from the Chicago History Museum that’s now installed at Bellevue Arts Museum, can be happily experienced on its sparkly, silky surface. But the joy of fashion is in the stories clothing can tell. Here, the story is of one remarkable woman, Eunice W. Johnson, and how her decades of curating what was known as “the world’s largest traveling fashion show” was instrumental in opening the fashion world to African Americans — as designers, models and consumers.

Ebony’s roots

That show, the Ebony Fashion Fair, was one of those ideas that took root and grew. In 1956, Ebony magazine publisher John W. Johnson, Eunice’s husband, was asked if the magazine could supply models from its fashion pages for a hospital charity fundraiser in New Orleans. Johnson, instead, offered to supply the clothing, adding one condition: Each ticket sold would include a subscription to Ebony or its sister publication, Jet.

Museum exhibit

‘Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair’

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. First Free Friday through Aug. 14 at Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way, Bellevue; $5-$12 (425-519-0770 or bellevuearts.org).

The event was a success, and two years later Johnson Publishing Company launched its touring show, which in its first year visited 30 cities. Eunice Johnson, an elegant woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the fashion industry, became its director by the mid-1960s, as well as fashion director for the magazine. Under her guidance, the show became a phenomenon: visiting 100-plus cities per year, reaching as many as 5,000 people per evening, and raising millions of dollars for African-American charities.

In its five decades, the Ebony Fashion Fair appeared at venues large and small; from elaborate theaters to high-school auditoriums and community centers. And what it offered was something rare: the opportunity to see high-end, haute couture fashion up-close, and to be inspired by it.

“Mrs. Johnson and her team were trying to show fashion at every level, as both the fantasy and also the inspiration for what women — and in some instances men — in their audiences could aspire to wear,” said Joy Bivins, co-curator of the exhibit for the Chicago History Museum. She noted that when the tour began, the civil-rights era was still in its early days.

“Bringing these garments to the public — in some instances, in places that were segregated, where black women couldn’t shop in the stores where they could be found — was pretty radical at the moment,” Bivins said. “And then also providing opportunities for black models to wear these garments, because it certainly wasn’t happening in the high-fashion houses. There were all these elements of creating access, and in some sense, participating in a civil-rights movement through the use of clothes.”

Eunice Johnson, whose contacts within the fashion industry were vast, would purchase the garments on buying tours of the leading couture houses of Europe and America. Bivins said that perhaps 3,500 to 5,000 outfits from the show were archived at Johnson Publishing Company’s headquarters, from which the exhibit was chosen.

A Seattle model

Models for the Fashion Fair came from all over the United States, including Seattle. Linda Johnson Coats, who lives in the Genesee neighborhood, remembered sending in an application to Ebony magazine after graduating from Franklin High School in 1976. She was flown to Chicago for an audition — “the first time I flew by myself!” — and was eventually selected, from more than 1,000 young women, for the tour.

“It was an opportunity that I will never forget — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Coats, remembering her year with the show. The models worked with choreographers, she said, to learn the dance movements they performed on the runway, usually accompanied by a live orchestra. Each model would have about 10 outfits in every show.

And, though Coats wasn’t the wearer, she recognized one garment in the BAM exhibit from her year: a sparkly Valentino beaded coat, over a black jumpsuit. “In 1977, it was priced at $100,000,” she said. “It weighed about 30 pounds!”

Coats, who remembered Eunice Johnson as “a really incredibly down-to-earth woman who treated us more like her children than her employees,” was later chosen to pose in a national ad campaign for Fashion Fair Cosmetics. The brand was originated by Johnson Publishing — because, as Coats said, “at the time there was no line for women of color” — and Coats was thrilled to be photographed by legendary fashion photographer Victor Skrebneski. She ended up working for the company, as a model and a makeup artist, for 10 years.

Fashionable history

Stroll through BAM’s display and you’ll see decades of fashion history, with work from Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Ungaro, Dior, Valentino and many of the African-American designers championed by Johnson: Patrick Kelly, Stephen Burrows, B. Michael, Henry Jackson. On each garment, something artful jumps out: a silver-and-black puffball of a muff, accompanying a Jean Patou day dress; a tiny feathered hat atop a fierce-looking tiger-print Vivienne Westwood ballgown; a swirly-printed suit from Italian designer Erreuno with matching printed boots.

Note, also, a quietly radical silhouette: an elegant custom Todd Oldham gown, splashed with sequined flowers, made for a plus-size model. A larger model, said Bivins, was included in the show every year from the mid-’80s on, by audience request. “In the same way that the show was about showing black women that they could be glamorous and beautiful,” she said, “the plus-sized model was a way to connect with that element or aspect of their audiences as well.”

A businesslike portrait of Eunice Johnson (she’s holding a phone, as if on the line to some fashion house) has pride of place in the BAM exhibit, alongside a vivid blue, crisply elegant Pauline Trigère day dress from her wardrobe. She died in 2010, just after the Fashion Fair ended its run in 2009. Here, in the colorful whispers of garments that happily walked many runways, it lives on.

(Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair was developed by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, LLC, presented by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum, and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C.)