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A Look Back At 50 Years Of The Ebony Fashion Fair

In 1958, African-American women donned designer dresses and walked the runway for the first Ebony Fashion Fair. 

The charity fashion show was the brainchild of Ebony Magazine co-publisher Eunice Johnson and it showed African-American women as rich and successful. The fair ran for 50 years, and in that time it continued to be a space where African-American women could re-imagine their role in American society and reclaim their beauty.

Host Frank Stasio speaks with North Carolina Museum of Art Chief Curator Linda Johnson Dougherty, former Ebony Fashion Fair model and fraud investigator Kimberly Kearse-Lane, and NCMA designer-in-residence Precious Lovell about the legacy of the Ebony Fashion Fair.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Lovell on the promotion of African-American beauty:  
I cannot express how important this fashion show was to the African-American community. Not only because it raised over $55 million for charity, but also because it was created specifically for the African-American community. And Mrs. Johnson used all African-American models. They were all skin tones, all sizes. So when the community went to see these shows, they saw reflections of themselves on the runway … Anyone working in the fashion industry owes a great debt of thanks to Mrs. Johnson for all that she did.

Dougherty on the roots of the Ebony Fashion Fair: 
Eunice Johnson decided to do this she went directly to Europe to the fashion houses, to Dior and Cardin and Givenchy. And she was not asking to borrow the clothes for her fashion show, she was asking to buy the clothes and she still had a hard time. And I think what it really came down to is that fashion designers were afraid that if their clothes were showed on black models that white women wouldn't buy the clothes.

Kearse-Lane on her experience as a model in the fashion show:
It's a part of history that I'm so happy to be involved in because not only did it make an impact on me, but I had the opportunity to make an impact on little girls like me that came backstage or that I met at the receptions after the show and who said "Oh my gosh, you're so beautiful. Oh my gosh you're dark like me," and "I can't wait to grow up." It gave me an opportunity to write little things on their programs and inspire young girls like that.

Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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