In 1958, to celebrate and represent black women in the fashion industry, Ebony and Jet magazine founder Eunice Johnson hosted the first Ebony Fashion Fair. For the next 50 years the groundbreaking fashion show traveled to cities throughout the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean as both a runway spectacle and a charity event. It raised $55 million in total for African-American charities such as the United Negro College Fund. The fair gave the black community a place to celebrate and aspire to new luxury styles, as well as much-needed representation in the fashion world.
Johnson cast black models in open auditions and traveled to Europe to purchase clothing for the shows. She “had to ‘beg, persuade and threaten’ European designers to sell high fashion to a black woman,” NPR noted, quoting her husband John H. Johnson’s memoir. Johnson ultimately collected 8,000 outfits — an incredible collection of fashion by black designers and couturiers like Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and Givenchy.
Forty looks are featured in the ongoing, traveling exhibition “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” which opens at the North Carolina Museum of Art this weekend with a visit from André Leon Talley. The Vogue contributing editor will speak this Sunday at the museum and share memories and behind-the-scenes stories about the fair. The exhibition’s photographs are worth a revisit — check out haute couture and evening dresses in the slideshow ahead.