Theater of Fabulousness

Ebony Fashion Fair Turns 40

"God created black people, and black people created style,'' says Miss Roj, the philosopher drag queen from George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum. And so it is told, in the lost archives of Negro achievement, that on the seventh day, God sat back and let black people's hyperbolic sense of style create the Fashion Show.

Now, the fashion show, as it's understood in the African American aesthetic, is its very own performance genre. A theater of fabulousness, if you will. And such black theater is being staged, you can be sure, on any weekend, in any part of the country, from Milwaukee to East Orange. Unlike industry fashion shows, these events aren't about selling clothes, but a dramatic rendering of the stories and class ambitions behind the clothes.

Like the vogue balls it inspired, the black fashion show spends much of its time simulating a jet-set life, where yachts rendezvous in the Cote d'Azur and the obligatory glass of champagne is sipped from Baccarat crystal. Call them upper-class peep shows. No doubt in times past, these fantasy tableaux helped make up for how invisible we were in the great American mirror. Still today, behind the gaudy fur trim, the fashion show is an affirmation ritual of sorts, meant to fuel a sense of worthiness that cannot be felled by the isms that be.

Growing up, I went to fashion shows with my grandmother in Newark, New Jersey, in the '70s. These were modest in scale, yet nonetheless grandly theatrical, involving skits and music, a touch of comedy and romance. Even when cultural nationalism hit Newark, Gramma kept taking me to shows, though the cocktail gowns on view had given way to African-print lapas. My grandmother died before we could make our pilgrimage to the mother of all black fashion shows. So, when it rolled into town this fall, in her honor I jumped at the chance. Besides, I rang up a coconspirator who saw the vision immediately. Why would two urbane, non-bourgie-fronting, girl-writer types still die for a ticket to the Ebony Fashion Fair? In search of Afro-kitsch, that's why. ''Ooh, girl, stop,'' Lonnice moaned when I called to extend the invite. ''You know I'm there.''

Ebony Fashion Fair, the world's largest traveling fashion show, turns 40 this year. The annual fundraising event, billed this season as ''The Jazz Age of Fashions,'' is another offshoot of the Johnson Publishing Company and its empire of Negro standard-bearers. The show travels 32 weeks a year to 179 cities throughout the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, modeling couture primarily from the top European and American houses and a smattering of black designers. Sponsored by sororities and other social organizations in each city, since 1958, EFF has raised $44 million for scholarships and community works. The $20 ticket, more in some cities, also buys you a subscription to a Johnson publication.

Producer-director Eunice W. Johnson, wife of Ebony scion John H. Johnson, has run the show since 1963. In the early years, she got the cold shoulder from designers that didn't care how much money EFF was willing to spend--they just didn't want their clothes associated with black people. Today, Mrs. Johnson, who's close to 80 now and sounds like she never left the Selma, Alabama, of her girlhood, is one of the biggest couture buyers in Europe. She spends over $1 million of Ebony's war chest on her twice yearly shopping trips.

In keeping with the Johnson mission of uplift and validation, Ebony Fashion Fair was conceived as a way of exposing the masses to the ''civilized'' art of high fashion. Jess Moultry, of the Urban League Guild, which brings the show to Tacoma, Washington, says, ''It's about showcasing a vision of African Americans being successful.'' In certain black circles, mainly the middle-class sorority set, over time it has become the pinnacle of social events. Lay folk come to see and be seen; local fashion show producers, to pirate ideas; and devotees, to size up the new talent. (The fair has launched many careers, including those of Barbara Smith, Iman, Richard Roundtree, and WNBC newscaster Sue Simmons.) Legendary commentator Audrey Smaltz, who was the voice of Fashion Fair during the '70s, considers half the entertainment to be the audience, which is known to come dressed to the nines, hoping against odds to outdo the models.

Fair, as in carnival or circus, is the perfect designation for this two-hour-plus-intermission extravaganza of color, pantomime, and spike heels. Backed by a live band and synthesizer track, the show we saw was everything promised by the playbill's cover image, an attitudinous flapper in a silver mesh halter dress with matching mesh earrings and a fan. (''Matching'' is big in the Fashion Fair canon.) Though perhaps not intentionally, the commentary was droll--a mix of overwrought Europeanisms, as in ''Paree,'' dished with all possible flair, and fashion mother wit. ''The Fashion Fair woman,'' we were instructed, ''always gets the man,'' as long as she doesn't let the weather ''dress her down.'' The models, in all their sashaying glory, rivaled whirling dervishes. The cutesy runway skits featuring secret agents and ladies who lunch, with little else to do but walk their poodles, must have inspired the upper-class fancies that saturate r&b music video.

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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