Inspiring Beauty: From Big City Europe to Small Town America

A Transatlantic Look at the Ebony Fashion Fair

Photo by Abby Greenawalt

Currently on display at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair is an exhibition celebrating a traveling runway show that changed the course and perception of fashion forever. Fueled by the courageous and innovative vision of the late Mrs. Eunice Walker Johnson, the Ebony Fashion Fair toured the United States for over 50 years, debuting the latest haute couture from top European and American designers on African American models. From Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Oscar de la Renta — to Jean Paul Gaultier, Givenchy, and Stephen Burrows, the dazzling displays of extravagant ensembles characteristic of Johnson’s Fair turned heads everywhere it went.

“It was a big deal to see this,” said Camille Ann Brewer, curator of contemporary textile art for the the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum.

“Fashion Fair brought European-created fashion into small towns and cities — it came to you. You didn’t need to go to Paris to see it…and not everyone could afford that.”

Brewer related that one of the most impactful elements of the Ebony Fashion Fair was the way it altered the view of fashion for African Americans. “Black women were often discouraged from wearing loud colors,” she explained, describing how Johnson liked to put “the brightest colors on the darkest model” to reverse this notion completely. “If you saw someone at a show that looked just like you walking down in a Valentino…you thought ‘Well, I can wear that!’

Photos — Left: Tilmann Grawe (France), cocktail dress, special order, fall/winter 2003–04. Silk chiné taffeta, horn, plastic and glass beads, horsehair tubing, plastic boning. Appeared in Living It Up. Photo courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. Center: Eunice Johnson at work, 1970. Photo courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC. Right: Patrick Kelly (France), “I love Fashion Scandal” evening dress, special order, fall/winter 1986. Wool knit, plastic buttons. Appeared in Fashion Scandal. Photograph by John Alderson © Chicago Historical Society. More photos at

Innovative by nature, the Ebony Fashion Fair was groundbreaking in many ways. It introduced live music to runway shows, regularly featured plus-sized models, and always roused audiences with its lively, dramatic demonstrations. “Mrs. Johnson really liked for models to reveal,” Brewer commented, describing how many outfits were transformed through the removal of a jacket or overskirt. “She would encourage her designers to be artists themselves, always telling them ‘I want flash, I want flow, I want glamour!’”

And while Johnson’s Fair primarily toured in the United States, its inspiration and influence stretched across the Atlantic Ocean and made its mark on the European fashion industry.

As part of the European Union Month of Culture, the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, in collaboration with the Embassy of France (French Embassy U.S.) and Embassy of Italy (Italy in US), will host a conversation with former Ebony Fashion Fair model, commentator, and buyer Shayla Simpson, who will share her experiences working with Johnson and traveling to Europe’s couture design houses to purchase fashions for the touring show.

Photo by William Atkins/The George Washington University

“Initially, many designers did not want to sell to them because they didn’t want their fashions featured on dark-skinned models,” Brewer explained, “Yet the Italians eventually decided to work with them — and France soon followed.”

In the 70s and 80s, during Simpson’s tenure, Johnson was “the largest buyer of haute couture in the world,” Brewer said. “Dresses that (in today’s terms) would cost $50,000 to $60,000 a piece…Mrs. Johnson was buying 10, 12, if not 15. She leveraged the marketplace.” Six of the dresses Simpson personally purchased are on display in the exhibition.

Photo by William Atkins/The George Washington University

A retrospective look reveals that the effect of the Ebony Fashion Fair was felt far beyond the fashion marketplace. It confronted times of heightened racial tension through artistic, creative — and often daring — ways. For many towns and organizations, Fashion Fair was their major annual fundraiser. After covering show expenses, profits were donated to the local charities and community organizations of each city it toured. In Washington, D.C., proceeds from Fashion Fair built a playroom at Children’s National Medical Center and funded scholarships for students at Howard University.

Photo by Abby Greenawalt

But most importantly, “It also validated people,” Brewer concluded, recalling a young woman who recently attended Inspiring Beauty and was brought to tears.

“The way I look,” she said, wiping her eyes, “…is just fine.”

As someone who had never even heard of Fashion Fair, Inspiring Beauty was a transformative experience: “I’m so happy,” she concluded, “I didn’t know about this — that black people had created this business, this fashion show…and I knew nothing about it.”

Written by EUintheUS intern Travis Smith.

Click here for more information about the May 18th event with Shayla Simpson. EU visitors should register under the member option to receive a discounted rate. Purchase tickets online here.

Inspiring Beauty was developed by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with Johnson Publishing Company, LLC, presented by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum, and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C. For more information, click here. The exhibition will run through the entire European Union Month of Culture and through July 24, 2017. To learn more about the Ebony Fashion Fair, watch the video below.

Now in its fifth year, the European Month of Culture (EUMC) is a month-long festival of innovative and creative events for the American public highlighting the diverse cultures of all 28 European Union Member countries. Enjoy film, dance, music, theatre, exhibits, language classes, workshops and more in great venues throughout Washington DC. Most events are free! To see all EUMC events, click here.