February is officially Black History Month in the United States and a time to acknowledge and pay tribute to the talent and accomplishments of African-Americans in all fields, including fashion designers spanning many generations.
Originally introduced as Black Negro Week in 1926, Black History Month was the brainchild of scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who sought to acknowledge and celebrate African-American achievements in American culture.
In the world of fashion, these achievements include the works of several successful designers, many having begun their careers at the White House.
A former slave and dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley arrived in Washington around 1860 to become the personal seamstress of Mary Todd Lincoln, and design the First Lady's inaugural gown.
Decades later, fashion couturier Ann Lowe would design the wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding to then Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy in 1953.
Valdes designed the very first Playboy Bunny costume.
During the 1930's through 50's, milliner Mildred E. Blount had a bevy of famous clients, including silver screen star Joan Crawford and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, and is best known for the fanciful hats she designed for such notable films as “Gone with the Wind”, and “Easter Parade”.
During the late 40's, Zelda Wynn Valdes opened her own dressmaker’s shop on Broadway, helping to dress Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Mae West, and Marlene Dietrich, among many other starlets. She is best known for creating the original Playboy Bunny costume as well as stage costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem.
In 1946, Actress Olivia de Havilland accepts an Academy Award wearing an Ann Lowe gown.
Lillian Rogers Parks worked tirelessly for over three decades as a dress designer, seamstress, and maid at the White House and penned the autobiographical “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House”, in 1979.
These are just a few of the many notable African-American designers who have enriched the world of fashion throughout our time, as we honor these accomplished men and women during this special month. The Black Fashion Museum Collection permanently resides at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Written by Laura Milera, Metro Retro Vintage