RELEASE: Inspiring Beauty | 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair - The Charles H. Wright Museum Blog

RELEASE: Inspiring Beauty | 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair

For Immediate Release


Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Nikia Washington, PR & Social Media Manager

313.494.5866 E-mail:

International Arts & Artists

Laila Jadallah, Exhibitions Manager & Coordinator, Exhibition Development

202.338.0680 E-mail:

DETROIT, MI – September 9, 2015: The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is pleased to announce Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair a story of vision, innovation and power told through the history of Eunice Johnson, co-founder of Johnson Publishing Company, and the prism of iconic fashion from Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint-Laurent, Patrick Kelly and Emanuel Ungaro among others. Inspiring Beauty is on view at The Wright Museum during the final quarter of its 50th anniversary year from September 18 through January 3, 2016.

Organized by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, Inspiring Beauty is the first-ever exhibition about the Ebony Fashion Fair. The exhibition provides a multisensory retrospective on the 50-year history of the charity fashion spectacle that redefined the concepts of beauty, style and empowerment for African Americans. Nearly 100 objects including ensembles and accessories, as well as archival photographs and video help to re-create the one-of-a-kind experience and explore the history of the traveling fashion show and its director and producer, Eunice Walker Johnson.

At the center of this dynamic exhibition are the stunning gowns, feathered coats, and statement designs seen in the forty ensembles by designers including Stephen Burrows, Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Bob Mackie, Missoni and Vivienne Westwood which were selected from a collection of thousands Mrs. Johnson amassed in five decades. In addition to the stunning garments on display, Johnson's exquisite personal style and her influence in the world of fashion are explored through archival images, invitations to fashion houses, and interviews with those who knew her best. Johnson's own 1972 Pauline Trigère royal blue linen day suit exemplifies the exquisite patterning and construction she favored in her everyday style.

A Brief History

The Ebony Fashion Fair began in 1958, and over the next 50 years the traveling fashion show blossomed into an American institution that raised millions for charity and helped Johnson Publishing Company reach its audience.

Originally the fashion feature in Johnson Publishing Company's Ebony magazine, the Fashion Fair's success can be attributed to Eunice Johnson's determination to gain access to the highest echelons of fashion design, which at the time excluded African Americans, and share that access with her audience. Under Mrs. Johnson, who became producer and director in the early 1960s, the traveling show achieved new heights as she brought the pinnacle of international fashion to communities that were eager to see new aspirational images of black America—the hallmark of Ebony and Jet magazines.

"My mother often spoke about the importance of African American women feeling beautiful," said Linda Johnson Rice, chairman, Johnson Publishing Company. "The Ebony Fashion Fair legacy represents an important part of the rich African American cultural experience in America, and I am extremely excited that this exhibition is bringing my mother's vision to life in museums throughout the country."

Traveling throughout the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, the Ebony Fashion Fair provided a unique forum for audiences to experience the world's best fashion, showcasing designs by Italian, French, British, Japanese, and American designers. In constant struggle to break the color barrier, the show provided a platform for African American models as well as black designers, who were featured alongside the world's leading fashion houses.

Inspiring Beauty

Inspiring Beauty is presented in three sections that explore the three major themes of the exhibition. The first section of the exhibition, Vision, explores Eunice Johnson's role as the creative force behind the Ebony Fashion Fair. It features costumes that reflect power, affluence and influence, and express some of the traveling show's recurring aesthetic ideas. This section also contains a film (the first of three) that features interviews with Linda Johnson Rice and those who worked closely with Mrs. Johnson, providing a captivating memoir of Johnson's vision in turning the Ebony Fashion Fair into a world class fashion event.

Costume highlights include a 1996 Bill Blass three-piece hounds tooth day ensemble; the 1986 'I (heart) Fashion Scandal' jersey dress by Patrick Kelley, a design specially made by the designer at Johnson's request to match that year's theme, Fashion Scandal; and a 2000 Fausto Sarli canary-yellow beaded cocktail suit. An array of garments help to illustrate the show's emphasis on reverencing the female body and celebrating diverse complexions with bold colors.

The second section of the exhibition, Innovation, looks at the boldness and experimentation of Johnson Publishing Company. That story is explored through a media installation and ensembles that highlight bold stylization, dynamic shapes and innovative technique. Garments in this section reflect the full breadth of fashion fantasy that the traveling show brought audiences while the film highlights the historic significance of Johnson company publications.

The final section, Power, features Inspiring Beauty's most elaborate, luxurious and dramatic ensembles. Costumes by Valentino, Bob Mackie, Henry Jackson and Alexander McQueen reflect the glamour and showmanship that created the dynamic visual experience that audiences expected. Like the traditional finale of haute couture runway shows, Ebony Fashion Fair always closed with a magnificent bridal gown. Emanuel Ungaro's 18th-century-inspired fairy tale wedding gown comprised of a beaded lace bodice, lavish pannier-style skirt embellished with embroidered floral sprays, and an underskirt of painted lace provides the final wow.

The final audiovisual installation looks at the impact Ebony Fashion Fair had on models, designers, and, most importantly, audiences. It gives exhibition visitors a glimpse of the significant impact that Ebony Fashion Fair had on the African American community. Through the Ebony Fashion Fair and the monthly features in Ebony magazine, Eunice Johnson brought fashion into millions of black households, reflecting the goals and objectives of Johnson Publishing Company to showcase and celebrate the best in black life. Johnson found inspiration for the show and its themes through a careful study of the moment's trends, a timeless approach to fashion and style, and a keen awareness of what Fashion Fair audiences wanted to see.

The Ebony Fashion Fair was always more than a fashion show. Audiences enjoyed a multisensory experience of music and fashion and also raised millions for African American charities. According to exhibition curator Joy Bivins, "fashion was always the draw but the opportunity that the show provided black women to see fantastic fashion on women who looked like them was equally important. On the Ebony Fashion Fair runway, black women were the beauty standard." Inspiring Beauty offers an unprecedented chance for visitors who never attended the show and Ebony Fashion Fair regulars to experience the beauty, glamour, and excitement first-hand.

About the Curators

Curator Joy Bivins has developed diverse exhibitions at the Chicago History Museum since joining the staff in 2002. Her projects include Teen Chicago; Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America; Colonia to Community: The Southeast Side; and Facing Freedom. She has contributed to the Journal of American History and Chicago History magazine. Ms. Bivins has taught courses at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and has received awards from the American Alliance of Museums, the Chicago Defender, and the Chicago Urban League.

Virginia Heaven is an Associate Professor of Fashion Design at Columbia College Chicago where she teaches design and fashion history. Heaven has worked as a consultant curator for over 30 years in many museums nationally including the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History and the Chicago History Museum. Heaven worked internationally for ten years as the director and curator of the Haifa Faisal Collection of Saudi Arabian Traditional Arts.

A companion catalogue published by Chicago History Museum accompanies the exhibition and explores the Fashion Fair's story through more than 60 full-color images and essays by Dr. Maxine Leeds Craig, and exhibition curators Joy Bivins and Virginia Heaven.

The Chicago History Museum has been awarded the 2014 Richard Martin Exhibition Award from the Costume Society of America for Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair. The Richard Martin Exhibition Award recognizes outstanding costume exhibitions that demonstrate excellence and innovation in the presentation and interpretation of costume.

Inspiring Beauty was on view at Chicago History Museum from March 16, 2013 to May 11, 2014 before embarking on its North American tour. Scheduled U.S tour dates for Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair are as follows: Museum of Design Atlanta, GA (October 18, 2014 – January 4, 2015); Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI (January 28, 2015 – May 3, 2015); Minnesota History Center, St. Paul, MN (May 22, 2015 – August 16, 2015); Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI (September 18, 2015 – January 3, 2016); Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester, NY (January 30, 2016 – April 24, 2016) and Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, WA (May 20, 2016 – August 12, 2016). For a current exhibition tour schedule please visit

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, DC.

About the Exhibition Partners

Chicago History Museum is privately endowed, independent institution devoted to collecting, interpreting, and presenting the rich multicultural history of Chicago and Illinois, as well as selected areas of American history, to the public through exhibitions, programs, research collections and publications. The Chicago History Museum boasts the second largest fashion collection in the world, making it the ideal venue to explore and celebrate the important legacy of Ebony Fashion Fair.

Johnson Published Company, LLC (JPC) was founded by John H. Johnson and Eunice W. Johnson in 1942 and is the leading, independently owned, Black America media publisher. The preeminent publisher of Ebony and Jet and owner of Fashion Fair Cosmetics, the company is a global prestige cosmetic brand for people of color. JPC is committed to celebrating the vibrancy of Black culture by operating trusted brands and delivering products of the highest quality that celebrate, inform, engage, entertain, inspire and enhance the lives of people. With more than 20 million readers each month, the corporate mission of the company focuses on education, financial literacy, and AIDS prevention.

International Arts & Artists in Washington, DC, is a non-profit arts service organization dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding and exposure to the arts internationally, through exhibitions, programs and services to artists, arts institutions and the public. Visit

About the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Founded in 1965 and located at 315 East Warren Avenue in Midtown Detroit's Cultural Center, The Wright Museum is the world's largest institution dedicated to the African American experience.For more information, please visit


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