My first thought as I walked through this exhibition was “I am glad I didn’t see this before I bought my dress for my son’s wedding!”  So many beautiful gowns, suits, cocktail dresses!  Such innovative combinations of colors, materials, styles and shapes!  I probably would have looked for something far more daring!

And I am sure that for many people who come to see this exhibit, beautiful clothes will be all it is for them.

The exhibit is titled “Inspiring Beauty:  50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” and runs through May 3rd, 2015 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  Unfortunately, the Museum is being renovated, so the regular collection is not viewable.  If you go, this is the extent of what you can see.  But you should go anyway;  this show is worth seeing.IMG_2170a

This is not your typical art museum exhibit.  I would have thought it more at home in a history museum. It is as if it were a show of a private person’s collection.  In this case, the collector is Eunice Walker Johnson and her “collection” is the work of designers whose names you will recognize – Bill Blass, Ungaro, Lacroix, Dior, Valentino … and some you might not.  She showcased this work at the Ebony (of Ebony Magazine) Fashion Fair.

Eunice Walker was remarkable from the word go. Born in Selma, Alabama in 1919 and college educated, she moved to Chicago to earn a master’s degree in social work in 1941. She and her husband, John H. Johnson, launched a publishing company and in 1945 founded Ebony, a monthly magazine famous for its bold covers.

IMG_2174aShe also founded the Ebony Fashion Fair, a multi-media fashion show that travelled the country and raised money for local charities.  “Inspiring Beauty” is a tribute to Eunice Johnson.  But it is also a biographical exhibit, focusing on her accomplishments.  But it would be shallow to say that it is just about her – it is also about racism in America and how the legacy of Eunice Johnson took on racism, head on, and changed the way all people look at African Americans, including African Americans themselves. It’s lens focuses on a special time for race relations in America. Besides presenting an image of African Americans as sophisticated, she also forced the world to see them in roles in which they had previously been invisible.  She started with the model of the Fair itself.  All of the crew was black. All of the models were black.

If you walk through the exhibit and just look at the clothes, you might not be struck by the fact that all the mannequins are dark-skinned.  We are pretty used to seeing that nowadays, in catalogs, on TV, in magazine ads and in department store windows.  But stop for one minute and think that not so long ago – within our lifetimes – that was unusual. Now you’re on the path to discovering an amazing woman with a vision.  What Eunice Johnson did was remarkable, but also amazingly successful.  She launched many black models onto successful careers, she showcased black designers. She hired only black people as her production crew. She did this at a time when even gas station restrooms were still segregated!IMG_2171a

Enjoy the designers and the beautiful clothes. But know that the exhibit is not about them, their trends, their growth or success, despite the fact that their work comprises the “art” on display.  Take the time to read, listen and think about what the Ebony Fashion Fair really meant to the women and men it was targeted at, for the institutions that benefitted from the more than $55 million that was raised, and to the individual men and women on the runway and behind the scenes. The Fair lasted until Eunice’s death in 2010.

And, to bring it all home, the Fair actually came to Milwaukee!  The MAM is even looking for pictures.

The show lasts until May3rd.  There are still just a couple of special events scheduled, so check the MAM websites for dates and times.

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