Inspiring Beauty

50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair

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  • Givenchy by Alexander McQueen

    Evening Ensemble, Fall/Winter 1997–1998

    Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum

    © International Art & Artists

  • Tilmann Grawe

    Cocktail Dress, Fall/Winter 2003–2004

    Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum

    © International Art & Artists

It is always interesting to see the unplanned through lines that appear between exhibitions at different institutions. Just as we at the Studio Museum prepare to close Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum has opened another exhibition centered around the role of the Johnson Publishing Company in defining concepts of beauty, style and empowerment for African Americans. Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair traces the colorful history of the fashion event that was founded in 1958 and began to be directed and produced by the late Eunice Johnson in 1963. The travelling fashion show raised millions for African-American charities as it toured the United States for fifty years, presenting haute couture of the day to black audiences across the country. The Ebony Fashion Fair presented a new sartorial vision for black America, one fully in line with the stylish and strident images published in Ebony and Jet magazines. Under Mrs. Johnson’s direction, the event’s stature and prestige grew alongside her own status within the fashion industry, eventually coming to an end after Johnson’s death in 2009. This vibrant history is explored in Inspiring Beauty through nearly one hundred objects, including archival photographs and videos, as well as unique accessories and garments by iconic fashion houses such as Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior, Valentino, Givenchy, Vivienne Westwood, Missoni and Alexander McQueen. While Speaking of People presented the myriad of ways the Johnson Publishing Company’s output has acted as both inspiration and material resource for numerous contemporary artists, Inspiring Beauty mines a specific facet of the company’s cultural influence.

Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair was originally presented by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum and is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through May 3, 2015. 

The exhibition will also be on view at Rochester's Memorial Art Gallery from January 31–April 24, 2016.

-Alejandro Hincapie, Communications Intern