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Garments from 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Show Return to Milwaukee

High fashion isn’t usually the kind of thing an art museum exhibits.

But the clothes in Milwaukee Art Museum's Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit offer a unique inside look into the world of fashion as envisioned by Eunice Johnson, publisher of magazines such as Ebony.

The Fashion Fair that Ebony sponsored went on for 50 years, starting in the Jim Crow South in 1959.  The show influenced how African-Americans were seen in broader American society. Milwaukee was included on the tour most of the years it existed.

The show featured big name designers like Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin and Oscar de la Renta, and the exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum includes some of their work.

Camille Morgan, curator for the exhibit, sat down with Lake Effect's Bonnie North to talk about Eunice Johnson's vision for the show.

"She would put the brightest colors on the darkest models," Morgan said. "Just seeing that contrast was really a celebration of skin colors and different phenotypes."

Morgan also discussed Johnson's civil rights mindset and how she brought high fashion to the black community, who didn't have the same rights as those designing the pieces they wore.

Despite Johnson being able to afford those designers, Morgan says they "did not want to sell to her. They did not want to see their clothes on black bodies." But she sought to adjust that, "she was part of the civil rights mindset, where things were changing. If blacks wanted to wear your Yves St. Laurent, your Oscar de la Renta and they could afford it, there was no reason they shouldn't be able to.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.