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August 29 2014

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Remembering Fifty Years of Ebony Fashion Fair

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Ebony Fashion Fair came from humble beginnings. It started in 1958 as a fashion-show fund-raiser in a women’s hospital, and thanks to its late producer, Eunice Johnson, it grew into an annual traveling high-fashion runway extravaganza. Opening this weekend, the Chicago History Museum’s new exhibition, Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair, celebrates the fair’s history, as well as Johnson, who introduced the African-American community to the world of haute couture during a time when access was not granted equally.

“My first show was Pierre Cardin, in Paris, at age seven,” recalls daughter Linda Johnson Rice. “I was too young for a seat and hung out backstage with the models.” Her mother always received front-row treatment; however, when she visited the showrooms, it was a different story. “Imagine the surprise during initial appointments, meeting an African-American female reporter and buyer. It was unheard of. But she wasn’t asking to borrow. She was making large purchases for the fair, and money talks.”

The message was heard loud and clear, as is evident in the exhibition, which features original fair looks by designers like Valentino, Dior, Halston, and Yves Saint Laurent. Joy Bivins, the curator of the show (which, it should be noted, is one of the museum’s largest temporary exhibitions to date), spoke of Ebony Fashion Fair’s broad influence. “The show was first used as a platform to extend the reach of the magazine. It became a transatlantic tour that truly transformed the lives of those who saw it.” Johnson Rice hopes the upcoming show will have a similar effect. “It’s exciting to think that a whole new generation will get to experience my mother’s legacy.”



Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair opens at the Chicago History Museum on March 16, 2013, and runs through January 5, 2014.

Photos: Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

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