Theater of Fabulousness

Ebony Fashion Fair Turns 40

And the clothes. Or were they costumes? The thigh-high cheetah boots from the ''Instincts of the Wild'' segment; the vinyl-covered, white lace rain ensemble with hoop skirt and parasol; the preponderance of blazing red and neon green; sequined suits for the office. These weren't just punctuation marks. The entire show hit the same Vegas high notes. If you can imagine it, it was there--including a mock animal tail attached to one evening dress that hung over the derriere, but for practicality could be thrown over the shoulder as a fur stole.

What aesthetic is this, you ask? Beyond simple nouveau riche pretension, some call it bizarrely over-the-top, even clownish--an embarrassing caricature of a ''real'' fashion show. A New York--based magazine editor who made her annual trek to the show as a predebutante in Shreveport, Louisiana, has a Fashion Fair conspiracy theory. ''The rejects, the most god-awful, hideous outfits in the European collections,'' she believes, are steered to the show ''as a way of mocking black women and their sense of style.'' (Mrs. Johnson says she herself selects all the outfits from the collections each year, based on their entertainment value.)

More than the loud mixed-metaphor designs, the editor resents the show's frequent references to what things cost. This, she suggests, has fostered an eerie materialism adopted by generations of middle-class blacks: we are nothing without our price tags.

My coconspirator and I, on the other hand, loved the show, and found it to be entertainment as purposely stylized as film noir. We vowed to take back every catty comment we had ever made about the Ebony Fashion Fair. It was our conceptual ignorance. Of course, simple black dresses and sensible suits don't make interesting theater. We loved the hot reds against the brown skins. (One of the show's achievements, according to Mrs. Johnson, was to pooh-pooh the notion that black women should stay away from bright colors.) The aesthetic, in our eyes, was more akin to the Alice in Wonderland dreamscapes you see in black-college coronation shows than to black women as fashion golliwogs. Beyond aesthetics, critics of EFF say it serves the community but has no effect on the industry at large. Lea Sanders, producer-host of the upcoming radio fashion review ''Attitude on a Budget,'' faults EFF for being wedded to European labels. Veronica Jones, who has the only black-owned showroom on Seventh Avenue, feels the EFF enterprise could use its clout to finance black designers, as well as pursue retail investments.

You can't get black fashion mavens to agree on the continuing relevance of Fashion Fair beyond its fundraising, yet many say it inspired them, for better or worse. Jones, who grew up in Camden, New Jersey, saw the show as a girl in Philly and later, as EFF expanded, in Cherry Hill. ''It made me dream of living in New York and Paris,'' says Jones. ''And eventually I did.''

Filmmaker Heather Johnston grew up attending EFF with her mother's bourgie circle on Long Island. Unlike the editor from Shreveport, Johnston has fond memories of the show, and is grateful to it for bringing ''pageantry to Hempstead.'' Though she went on to reject the status-conscious lifestyle personified by its sponsors, she became an artist, perhaps drawing on the cinematic, dadaist creativity that is so Ebony Fashion Fair. Like artist David Hammons says of the African-derived aesthetic of the South, ''Nothing fits, but everything works.'' I mean, a canary yellow cat suit topped with a fire-engine red calf-length coat and matching red fur hat. Go figure.

Research: Heather Dubin

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