In honor of Black History Month, I am lifting up the contributions to the fashion industry made by women of color. Not only are these stories of women with incredible talent, but these are also stories of women who possessed tremendous grit, determination, strength, and courage in the face of adversity. These remarkable women not only helped shape their own culture and community but culture as a whole while getting little, if any, acknowledgment.
This post celebrates the valuable contributions made by these women, who are not just integral to the timeline of fashion history, but history in general.
Elizabeth Keckley’s story is one of sheer will and determination. She was born into slavery in 1818 in Virginia through what has been assumed non-consensual sex between her mother, Agnes “Aggie” Hobbs, and her slave owner. Despite a harrowing life, which included beatings, rape, and family separation, it was her network of supporters and valuable dressmaking skills, taught to her by her mother that she eventually bought her freedom for her and her son from her St. Louis owners for $1,200. She made her way to Washington, D.C. in 1860 to establish her own dressmaking business and met first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She published her memoir, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, which was published in 1968.
Ann Cole Lowe, born in Clayton Alabama around 1898, came from a long line of seamstresses and said in her 1964 interview on the Mike Douglas show, “I never knew anything else.” She is considered the first African American to become a noted fashion designer. When Lowe attended design school in NYC, she was the first Black woman accepted but was segregated and forced to work alone and away from the white students.
Lowe’s designs were popular among upper-class women for five decades from the 1920s through the 1960s. She was the first Black designer to have a salon on Madison Avenue and she is most well known for creating the 1953 wedding gown and bridal party dresses for Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, for which Lowe did not receive any public acknowledgment. In 1947, when Olivia de Havilland accepted the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the movie To Each His Own, she wore a hand-painted floral Ann Lowe original design.
Lowe’s legacy as a couture designer of excellence paved the way for many other Black designers to establish themselves.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
JOYCE BRYANT IN A ZELDA WYNN VALDES GOWN
Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes was a fashion designer and costumier born in 1905 in North Carolina and trained as a classical pianist. Beginning her career as a stock girl at a high-end boutique, Zelda Wynn Valdes became the shop’s first Black sales clerk and tailor.
In 1948, Valdes opened “Zelda Wynn,” her design and dressmaking studio in Washington Heights NY. She sold her dresses to stars including Dorothy Dandridge, opera Jessye Norman, and Gladys Knight, Josephine Baker, Mae West, Ertha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, and Marian Anderson. Valdes also dressed the entire bridal party for the 1948 wedding of Marie Ellington, and Maria and Nat King Cole. Valdes also created a new sexier image for singer Joyce Bryant who LIFE Magazine dubbed “the Black Marilyn Monroe. It was glamorizing women that caught the eye of Hugh Hefner who commissioned her to design the famous Playboy Bunny Costume, which debuted in Chicago in 1960.
Wynn is one of the founding members of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers. Up until her death in , she was still designing costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Rosemary Reed Miller
Rosemary Reed Miller was the owner of Toast and Strawberries, a landmark boutique in Washington, D.C. She was also a published author on African-American dressmakers from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries titled, The Threads Of Time, The Fabric Of History: Profiles Of African American Dressmakers And Designers From 1850 To The Present.
In the ’60s, Miller was an informational officer for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., and a part-time jewelry accessory designer. She opened Toast and Strawberries to pay the bills. Through the years, Miller promoted designers through various community fashion shows. For example, in 1974, Miller participated in the National Council of Negro Women’s 8th annual fashion show and her store developed a program to educate others about the history of African-American women in dressmaking and designing and to demonstrate how the craft assisted as a venue for economic support and potential independence.
Ola Hudson was a prominent fashion designer and costumier in the seventies. She has designed clothes for David Bowie, whom she dated, Janet Jackson, John Lennon, Elton John, Diana Ross, The Pointer Sisters, and so on. She was known for her retro design work, featuring details from the 1940s, that the Pointer Sisters wore. She is also the mother of Slash from Guns ‘N Roses (born Saul Hudson).
Hudson’s design company was named Ola Hudson Enterprises, Incorporated. She also created special collections for Arpeja, Henri Bendel, Right Bank Clothing and Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, Maxfield Blu of Los Angeles. Hudson’s fashion design was somewhat minimal. She said, “It’s getting right down to basics.”
It has been said about David Bowie that, “this most visually aware of performers would not have made the transition as successfully without Hudson’s crucial input.”
Lois K. Alexander Lane
Powerhouse, Lois K. Alexander was born in Little Rock Arkansas in 1916. Alexander-Lane, who was not allowed into department stores to browse as a child, would recreate the clothing she saw in the windows. She received her master’s degree in fashion and merchandising from NYU. Her proposing thesis on the historic role of African Americans in Manhattan retailing, titled, The Role of the Negro in Retailing in New York City from 1863 to the Present, was voted best of the year despite her professor telling her that African Americans played no such role.
Lois Alexander Lane was a 36-year federal employee, mostly with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and its predecessor agencies. She founded the Harlem Fashion Institute in 1966 with devotion and the desire to teach Black youths the techniques for entering the garment industry, and also the National Association of Milliners, Dressmakers and Tailors, and The Black Fashion Museum in 1979. Alexander-Lane also established two custom wear boutiques – one in Washington, DC (The Needle Nook) and one in New York City (Lois K. Alexander & Co.).
The Black Fashion Museum no longer exists but the rare archive and donated garments kept by the daughter of Lois K Alexander Lane were donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture about a decade ago before the institution started construction in Washington D.C.
There isn’t much out there about Canadian, Verlie Morrison, who has been referred to as an “international stylist” and studied with French and Italian designers. Her designs were featured in Harlem Fashion Shows and she was known for designing gowns for Lena Horn, supper club performer Sheila Guyse and has been photographed fitting Diahann Carroll for her winter show to benefit the NAACP, Emmett Till Drive, according to an Oct. 22, 1955, article in New York Age. Morrison often participated in fundraisers for the NAACP
In 1958, she was seen in a 1958 Ohio Sentinel article with a home economist wearing an emerald green gown created by the designer to promote the beverage. The article that appeared in Black newspapers around the country did not make it clear if Morrison was commissioned by the company to make the garment, however, the economist, Louise R. Prothro, was one of the first Black women to be hired for a national position at a U.S. company.
Mary Richardson, born in 1858 in North Carolina, was described as a “successful New York modiste with elite Park Avenue clientele. She attended the Kent Home industrial school for young women, which would later become Bennett College, and eventually settled in NYC in 1930 where she established her dressmaking business. Mrs. Richardson would become the designer and fitter for celebrities and elites such as Princess Grace Kelly Grimaldi, Loretta Young, Sophie Tucker, Barbara “Bobo” Rockefeller, and Jules Stein. After the death of her only daughter, Rena, to rheumatic fever at the age of six, Richardson would design and tailor an Easter dress to donate to a child every year thereafter in honor of her daughter.
Mary Richardson was named editor and contributor of the fashion column, “So, Sew Prettily,” in the Louisville Defender in 1940. As a divorcee herself, she wrote on topics that included ways that women could establish autonomy through entrepreneurship as designers and modistes; instructions on how to repurpose one’s wardrobe; and advice on how to invest the savings earned from handmaking household items, in order to navigate the difficulties of inflation in an uncertain economy.
Willi “Madame Posey” Jones
Madame Posey’s daughter modeling one of her mother’s designs
Willi Jones, who originally wanted to be a dancer, was known professionally as Madame Posey, studied at The Fashion Institute of Technology and chose a career in the all Black world of Harlem fashion, which consisted of Black photographers, models and designers. She is the mother of artist American painter, writer, mixed media sculptor, and performance artist, Faith Ringgold, best known for her narrative quilts. Madame Posey, among other Black designers, both professional and amateur, were paramount in the world of style and modernity against which Black women and girls shaped their identities, found self-confidence.
The Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and the National Association of Fashion and Accessories Designers connected Black fashion designers and lack of acceptance by the mainstream fashion industry did not stop these women from gaining wider recognition. Madame Posey, and others, held fashion shows in Harlem and the Waldorf Astoria.
Bernice L’Tanya Griffin
Known only as L’Tanya, Bernice L’Tanya Griffin was presumably one of the first Black women to go by one name. There isn’t a lot of information out there about L’Tanya who was a fashion designer in the 1940s and 1950s. Creations by L’Tanya were been purchased by movie stars like Joan Crawford, Dorthy Dandridge, and many black bandleaders’ wives, including Marie Ellington, and Mrs. Nat King Cole. She also created gowns for twenty Edward D. Wood, Jr. movies. Ed Wood is considered the worst director in the history of film. Searches of Ed Wood movie credits turned up no credits for Griffin.
According to a Jet Magazine article, L’Tanya operates a Hollywood dress shop, and received the first fashion credit ever awarded to a Negro designer. She was also quoted in a Jet article, “We have become more conservative and tend to bypass loud colors and unbecoming styles we once favored. On the whole, we have solved the problem of selecting colors to complement our particular complexions and are toning down the flamboyance of which we are often accused.”
Mildred Blount, born 1907 in North Carolina, has been noted for her creations for celebrities and people in high society. Blount began her career at Madame Clair’s Dress and Hat Shop in NYC. Following that, she and her sister went on to open their own shop focusing on wealthy New Yorkers. Looking to the past for inspiration and Blount’s designs, featuring a collection of 87 miniature hat styles from 1680 to 1937 told the story of this fabulous accessory, which was shown at the 1939 World’s Fair. Receiving praise, her reputation grew quickly and Blount was asked to design hats for the films Gone with the Wind and Easter Parade.
Blount’s hats got recognition on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in August 1942 and she opened a hat shop in Beverly Hills, Ca in the ‘40s where she became known as the “milliner to the stars”. Clients included Marian Anderson, Rosalind Russell, Mary Pickford, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Vanderbilt, whose wedding veil Blount designed. Mildred Blount is the first African American member of the Motion Pictures Costumers Union.
Chicago milliner Artie Wiggins was often mentioned in Johnson Publications’ Jet and Ebony magazines during the 1950’s and 60’s, also Chicago based, as well as New York Age. Wiggins authored booklets on hats and designed patterns for Hats Magazine. Artie’s designs also found their way into print. As close friends with the first Black female cartoonist, Jackie Ormes, who worked for the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier newspapers, Wiggins’ hat styles were often used for Ormes for the main character in her ‘Torchy’s Togs” paper dolls series.
Born in Bermuda in 1905 and arriving in the United States in 1912, Bailey grew up in the Harlem Renaissance. She mingled in many social and art clubs and a regular on the Harlem social scene, which called for an extensive wardrobe despite Black Americans not being permitted access to mainstream clothing and other retail establishments at that time. This is what many believed fostered Ruby Bailey’s career.
Most recognized for her “Bugs” cocktail dress, printed with webs and adorned with silhouetted spiders and jeweled bees, she wore it to the “Bugs” Cotton Extravaganza held at Lenox Avenue’s legendary Savoy Ballroom in 1953-54. Bailey was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as a master beader. According to a New York Amsterdam-Star News article, on April 9, 1949, Hollywood costume designer Adrian saw her designs at the St. Regis hotel and selected some to be adapted for his designs.
I wish I could have sourced photos of Beulah Bullock in her heyday because, wow, what a woman. Born in North Carolina in 1913, she was gifted with the ability to design garments without using patterns and create a garment right before your eyes with just a piece of fabric and straight pins. Settling in Harlem, She brought that gift to the community during the Harlem Renaissance era as an independent fashion designer, designing clothes for both men and women. Her clothing highlighted her love of mixing fabric and colors and had aesthetic, energetic, and positive qualities. Bullock was nicknamed “Madame Bullock” because of her well-known style for fashion and for using her gift of fashion to help build a person’s self-esteem. Bullock has been remembered for designing her own signature look, always coordinated from head to toe, with high heels, and her signature Turban. It has been said that Madame Bullock “glided through the streets of Harlem.”
Bullock had a legendary career as a philanthropist and devoted herself to supporting the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem and holding an annual fashion show for the organization. She believed strongly in children developing their minds and was known for her famous word, “THINK!!!”
Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House
Considered one of the most candid and poignant slave narratives. Self-reliant and educated, Keckley used her dressmaking skills to set up a successful business in the pre-Civil War Washington D.C., where she became the modiste of choice for many of the most fashionable women in the nation s capital
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend
In the rural community of Gee’s Bend, African American women have been making quilts for generations. They use scraps of old overalls, aprons, and bleached cornmeal sacks—anything they can find. Their traditions have been passed down through the decades. Much to the women’s surprise, a selection of the quilts was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2002.
Something to Prove: A Biography of Ann Lowe America's Forgotten Designer
When she designed and produced Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress, very few knew her name. No one but her staff knew of the disaster that preceded the delivery of that now-historic wedding dress to the home of the bride. Even fewer knew that she was the granddaughter of a former slave.Even today, few know her story.
Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity
Slaves to Fashion is a pioneering cultural history of the black dandy, from his emergence in Enlightenment England to his contemporary incarnations in the cosmopolitan art worlds of London and New York.
The Threads Of Time, The Fabric Of History: Profiles Of African American Dressmakers And Designers From 1850 To The Present
38 Profiles of Afro-American designers and textile artist from 1850 to the present. Featuring Ann Lowe who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, and Elizabeth Keckley, who designed for Mary Lincoln. and others who are profiled demonstrating their struggles & contributions to the world of fashion.
Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul
Tanisha C. Ford explores how and why black women in places as far-flung as New York City, Atlanta, London, and Johannesburg incorporated style and beauty culture into their activism. Focusing on the emergence of the “soul style” movement—represented in clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, and more—Liberated Threads shows that black women’s fashion choices became galvanizing symbols of gender and political liberation.
Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem: A Memoir
Dapper Dan pioneered high-end streetwear in the 1980s, remixing classic luxury-brand logos into his own innovative, glamorous designs. But before he reinvented haute couture, he was a hungry boy with holes in his shoes, a teen who daringly gambled drug dealers out of their money, and a young man in a prison cell who found nourishment in books. In this remarkable memoir, he tells his full story.
Black Designers in American Fashion
This book, inspired by the award-winning exhibition at the Museum at FIT, uncovers hidden histories of Black designers at a time when conversations about representation and racialized experiences in the fashion industry have reached all-time highs.
The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther
Ruth E. Carter is a living legend of costume design. For three decades, she has shaped the story of the Black experience on screen—from the ’80s streetwear of Do the Right Thing to the royal regalia of Coming 2 America. Her work on Marvel’s Black Panther not only brought Afrofuturism to the mainstream, but also made her the first Black winner of an Oscar in costume design. In 2021, she became the second-ever costume designer to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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Thanks for sharing these amazing profiles of talented women whose work hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserved. Your acknowledgment of their creativity and contribution is valuable!
Thanks for your comment, Carol. The research was so inspiring and incredible. I feel like I just scratched the surface of those whose accomplishments have gone far too overlooked.
thank you for a fascinating read. It says a lot that someone as interested in the history of fashion as i am has never heard of any of them. it would be good to do a similar article on modern designers too?
Thank you, Noreen. I knew the better-known ones, like Elizabeth Keckley, Zelda Wynn, and Ann Lowe, but the rest I also just learned about. What impressive and incredible women.
A feature with modern Black designers would be great. If it takes some time for it it’s not lack of interest but making the time to do due dilligence in my research. Researching for this post was quite the well worth it endeavor!!