Reading about an exhibition that’s about to open at the Milwaukee Art Museum—“Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair”—took me back to the night long ago in Cincinnati when my teenage daughter and I saw this African-American extravaganza live.
I can’t reconstruct how we first learned about it, but the Ebony Fashion Fair was a high-class, traveling fashion show that visited, at its peak, over 150 cities and towns every year. And “high class” barely says it: The show was filled with one-of-a-kind creations from the grands couturiers of Europe—interspersed with the work of up-and-coming black designers and showcasing black models. The purpose wasn’t to sell clothes—they weren’t for sale—but to enjoy them for their artistry and flair, give exposure to young models and designers, raise money for charity (a local sorority in each town sold tickets and channeled the proceeds to favorite causes), promote Ebony magazine (a subscription came with every ticket), and give well-heeled African Americans a festive night out. It did all this from 1958 to 2008, outlived by its impresario by just two years.
That was Eunice Walker Johnson, wife of publishing magnate John H. Johnson and cofounder with him of Ebony. They intended this Life magazine lookalike to celebrate the positive aspects of African-American experience, and it did—though that’s not all. Ebony debuted in 1945, in time to cover the civil rights movement. It proved its journalistic mettle by publishing the open-casket photograph of Emmett Till.
Eunice Johnson inherited both serious-mindedness and love of beauty from her family. She was born in 1916 in Selma, where her grandfather helped found Selma University. Her father was a surgeon, and her mother a high school principal who also taught art. Though an executive at Johnson Publishing for decades, she made the fashion fair her special legacy. After she died in 2010, the Selma Times-Journal interviewed someone from Alpha Kappa Alpha, local sponsor of the show, who said, “For more than 30 years we’ve had a packed audience to see the latest in fashion. . . . To me it’s like going to Paris or going to Hollywood.”
That’s how it felt in Cincinnati, too, in the mid-1980s. The Ebony Fashion Fair descended on the city’s most elegant venue, Music Hall, all red plush and gilt and crystal chandelier, home of the illustrious choral May Festival and the Cincinnati Opera. The night we went, le tout black Cincinnati was there in style. Amid greetings and gaiety, local celebrities were hubs of buzz and glitz. There was “The Big O” Oscar Robertson, with his wife in red ruffles. Politicians abounded—city council member Marian Spencer, and the city’s first black mayor, the slim and distinguished Ted Berry, and ubiquitous city councilman and former mayor Ken Blackwell, popular though a black Republican. The only white person I remember besides us was the bald and bearded Jim Tarbell, not yet a politician, who’d turned a Civil War-era bar downtown into Arnold’s, source of the most reliably homey soup and cornbread west of the Alleghenies.
It was my daughter Hilary’s first fashion show, and when the audience finally settled down, and the house lights dimmed, the music struck up, and the announcer took command, what a spectacle it was! Sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes, the models stepped out, strutting and twirling and striking poses, and each time a new constellation of colors and forms appeared, an astonished “Ahhh!” would issue from the crowd. Dior, Cardin, Saint Laurent, Balmain, Givenchy—the names of the great Parisian houses rang out, interspersed with those, unfamiliar to me, of Henry Jackson and Patrick Kelly and -Stephen Burrows and Eric Gaskins, their aspiring heirs. And by the time the bridal gown that ends a classic fashion show finally appeared, we were sated with glamour as one is sated with sparkle after a long and lingering crescendo of fireworks.
When the lights came up, the socializing resumed, and that’s when Hilary and I pulled off a minor coup. We’d left her brother Tom in a hospital bed, casualty of a friendly neighborhood crab-apple fight. He’d been hit in the eye, suffering something called a hyphema that required he lie immobile for four days. Next evening when we appeared at his bedside, we had just the thing to send his spirits soaring: the autograph of one of his favorite Reds players, Dave Parker, scrawled across a program for the Ebony Fashion Fair.