Black Fashion History: Who was Zelda Wynn Valdes?

Happy Black History Month Everyone! It’s February 1st, so you know we have to bring that knowledge. Instead of the regular-smegular black history icons in the history books. I’ve decided to bring Black History Month to the fashion world for groundbreaking moments. These milestones deserve to be highlighted.

 

The Business of Fashion said it best “Why Aren’t There More Black Designers?”.

In an industry that celebrates diversity, the talent within the industry often lacks inclusion. Although a mass market, talented Black designers often face discriminatory practices and get the short end of the stick. Not to say there aren’t talented or successful black designers, i.e Martine Rose, Olivier Rousteing, Wales Bonner, Virgil Abloh, Samuel Ross and Telfar Clemens. But the question remains, why aren’t there more black fashion designers?

“It’s time for us to start caring about diversity further than the end of the runway”, Dazed and Confused.

 

We are here to shine a spotlight on those before us who paved the way. A tribute to the artists, designers, and activists that helped shape the fashion industry to what it is today.

Photo Credit: ColorWebMag

Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905-2001) is an African American costume and fashion designer. Having 40 years in the fashion industry, Zelda was a celebrity dressmaker and sole creator of the original Playboy bunny costume. The gauge of Zelda’s importance is more than her influence on other designers, but more so the niche she occupied and clientele loyalty. She created special occasion dressing from wedding gowns, cocktail dress to luxurious ensembles.

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Zelda shaped the idea of glamorous women through high profile clientele, the ideal Playboy Bunny image, and the conversations that spark about beauty and body image. Zelda’s curve-hugging creations and design talent highlight the female body. Working in New York City, Zelda’s career began in her uncle’s tailoring shop. Following her assistant position, she opened her own shop in 1948 becoming the first African-American owned boutique, Chez Zelda, in Manhattan (the shop late moved to Midtown in 1950).

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Zelda is best known as the woman behind Hugh Hefner’s iconic Playboy Bunny Costumes.

Credit: HuffingtonPost/ Photo: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives
http://empiricalblackness.tumblr.com/post/102352513351/the-playboy-bunny-costume-was-made-by-a-black

Catching the eye of Hugh Hefner with her glamorous aesthetic, Zelda was commissioned to design this satin, low-cut, seductive outfit. Her ongoing relationship with the Playboy Club led to staged fashion shows in the Playboy New York location.

 

Zelda’s story is important to not only Black History but Women’s History.

Credit: Ebony / Photo: Zelda Valdes designs costumes for The Dance Theatre of Harlem Nights by company founder Arthur Mitchell

As one of the founders of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, a coalition of black designers; she also served as President of the New York Chapter of the NAFAD. Zelda’s talent allowed her to dress some of the most important fashion women in the world during the 1940s and 50s, including Dorothy Dandridge, Mae West, Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Jessye Norman, Gladys Knight, the 1948 bridal party of Nat King Cole, and Marie Ellington, and Joyce Bryant (the black Marilyn Monroe).

 

“Zelda’s legacy is long and enduring”, Huffington Post.

Who knows what the future holds for black designers. As our black youth look to design icons of Abloh and Kanye West, radical actions are being taken.

“If more people of colour make the decision to study in design-related fields, a shift will occur – as it is now, it doesn’t guarantee success but it levels the playing field” – Samuel Ross, DazedDigital.

Courtney Wilkins

Celebrity Interviewer & Fashion Blogger

I am a Multimedia Journalist. I specialize in fashion but have a background in social media, editorial styling, content curation, and video production across print, digital and social platforms. As a Curator, I bring a fresh perspective which exposes creative innovative fashion visionaries.

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