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There's not much you can count on when it comes to fashion. Trends come and they go. But one thing in the world of fashion people can count on is that the Ebony Fashion Fair continues to lead the way in showing Black America the latest in high fashion.
The Ebony Fashion Fair has not only premiered creations by the world's biggest designers, but also made big stars out of some of its models.
It's been more than 50 years since the show was created, and to this day it has remained in a class of its own every step of the way.
One dares not utter Ebony Fashion Fair without immediately having Mrs. Eunice W. Johnson, producer-director of Ebony Fashion Fair, come to mind. A true fashion pioneer, Mrs. Johnson has been traveling abroad to purchase creations from the world's best-known fashion houses for more than four decades. During this time, she has earned a place in fashion history as the first Black ever to purchase from across the Atlantic for a traveling fashion show.
The fashion extravaganza continues to make history and has established itself as the world's largest traveling fashion show-the only one of its kind, Black or White.
It all started in 1956 when the idea for the Ebony Fashion Fair was conceived. In an effort to support a worthy cause, Mrs. Jessie Covington Dent, wife of Dr. Albert W. Dent, former president emeritus of Dillard University in New Orleans, approached Mr. John H. Johnson, publisher, chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Co., to sponsor a mini-fashion show fund-raiser for the Women's Auxiliary of Flint-Goodrich Hospital in New Orleans.
The first show was such a success that Mr. Johnson, in consultation with Mrs. Johnson and Freda C. DeKnight, home service director, then decided to take it on a cross-country tour to benefit other worthy charities. Ten cities were selected in 1958 by Mr. and Mrs. Johnson to host the first Ebony Fashion Fair. With the theme "Ebony Fashion Fair Around The Clock," the show featured four female models with DeKnight serving as commentator. Ticket prices ranged from $3.50 to $12. The prices remained that way from 1958 through 1966, with more than 50 percent of the earnings allocated for scholarships.
A variety of non-profit groups has sponsored the show in each city, helping many organizations to raise money for charitable causes. Most often leading social and civic groups and sororities and fraternities have benefited from the show's efforts. The show is sponsored by nearly 180 non-profit organizations with some cities alternating because of the travel time frame. The audience grew each year from hundreds to thousands. Today, hundreds of thousands of people attend the show each year.
Over 4,000 shows have been performed to date in the United States, the Caribbean, London, England, and Kingston, Jamaica. To date, Ebony Fashion Fair has raised more than $55 million for various scholarship groups, allowing hundreds of young people the opportunity to further their education.
Sadly, Dent, the woman who inspired the creation of the show, died in 2001 at the age of 96.
Attending Ebony Fashion Fair is always quite an experience. Noted for its eye-catching, jaw-dropping designs, the show has been credited with helping Black women to keep up with what's vogue across the Atlantic. For instance, in 1975 audiences thought it was the "living end" when model-former Ebony Fashion Fair commentator Shayla Simpson modeled a thong, two-piece swimsuit by late designer Rudi Gernreich. Twelve years earlier the same designer rendered people speechless after they saw his topless bathing suit!
The show has been noted for its bold outfits that celebrate the human body. It's nothing to see sheer camisoles and blouses that reveal breasts, pants that expose the buttocks or evening gowns with splits so high they become the talk of the fashion show. And while many of the creations appeared "wild" back then and even now, it seems that the show is well ahead of its time. Today thongs have become a necessary fashion statement for women who don't want panty lines to show.
Keeping up with fashion trends isn't the only thing for which the show has been recognized. Throughout the years, patrons are introduced to creations by world-renowned Italian, French, British and Japanese designers. And, throughout the years, Black designers also have been showcased from Stephen Burrows to James Daugherty to L'Amour to B. Michael to Quinton de Alexander. While fashion is the staple of Ebony Fashion Fair, the show has also launched careers. Some of the Ebony Fashion Fair models have become stars in their own right thanks, to their great start with the show.
Famed actor Richard Roundtree and former "First Lady of the Pentagon" Janet Langhart Cohen are just a few who got their start as models with the show. Roundtree was a salesman in a haberdashery in 1967 when Mrs. Johnson discovered him in New York. Tall, dark and handsome, the dimple-faced Roundtree was a hit on the runway. He later went on to score big as the smooth detective John Shaft in the Shaft action movies. His cool leather look ended up starting a fashion trend for men in the 1970s. Today, men continue to emulate that style.
Janet Langhart Cohen, a former co-host of the syndicated "Good Day" show, also strutted the runway as an Ebony Fashion Fair model. After college she worked as a model for the show and credits the grace and poise she learned under the tutelage of Mrs. Johnson for her success in television. Langhart Cohen was among the first Black women to break into television. She worked for ABC, NBC and CBS, in addition to BET. The award-winning veteran of journalism and television currently is president and CEO of Langhart Communications. She is the wife of former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.
Pat Cleveland, the youngest ever to tour with Ebony Fashion Fair at age 15, used her experience with the show as a springboard for what would become a successful modeling career. Cleveland, during the '70s, became one of fashion's biggest Black runway models. Before the term supermodel was formally coined, the pioneering beauty was considered among one of fashion's first Black "supermodels." Terri Springer was the undisputed "star" of Ebony Fashion Fair from 1959-1964. Today many people still recall the grace and beauty of the regal, mocha-colored model. The daring and beautiful Springer hit the runway like she owned it with explosive drama and elegance. And during a day and age when women with dark skin weren't eager to wear bright colors, Springer wore bright colors as if they were made exclusively for her.
Actress Judy Pace , along with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin , was the first to model in ads for Fashion Fair Cosmetics. After touring with the show, the lovely Pace went on to appear in such films as The Slams, Cool Breeze, Brian's Song and Cotton Comes To Harlem. She also appeared on the '60s TV series "Peyton Place." She is the widow of baseball legend Curt Flood . Like Langhart Cohen, Sue Simmons found a career in television following her stint as a model. A veteran of more than 25 years in television journalism, today Simmons is a WNBC co-anchor of "News Channel 4/Live At Five," and "News Channel 4 at 11 p.m.," New York's No. 1-rated late newscast. Former Ebony Fashion Fair models Wendy Wiltz and Joslyn Pennywell went on to join the cast of the hit television reality show, “America’s Next Top Model”, hosted and produced by supermodel Tyra Banks.
Roundtree wasn't the only male model to go on to do great things. Eddie E. Hatch landed a role on the soap opera "All My Children" and later on "Another World." He also did stunt work for Billy Dee Williams and appeared in movies such as Hot Shot, Street Smart, The Warriors and High Stakes. Ebony Fashion Fair model Hal DeWindt, a noted teacher and acting coach in New York for more than 20 years, was involved with classic films such as Cotton Comes To Harlem, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, and Sounder.
---Margena A. Christian is the Features Editor of JET magazine