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The Black woman behind the Playboy bunny costume.
Issue #11: haute couture, classical piano, entrepreneurship, ballet, Playboy.
From a childhood where she seemed destined for a career as a classical pianist, to helping craft the image for some of the most famed female sex symbols of the 1950’s and 60’s, to a force that would forever change the landscape of ballet in the United States, this woman was so much more than the mere seamstress she was sometimes dismissed as.
Art by Cecilia Fong
Zelda Wynn Valdes was born Zelda Christian Barbour in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on 18 June 1905. She was the eldest of seven children in a rural, working-class family, and showed an early inclination and aptitude for creative endeavours: she trained as a classical pianist at the Catholic Conservatory of Music, and was fascinated with watching her grandmother’s seamstress work with fabric and thread. Mimicking her, Zelda made outfits in miniature for her dolls. After some time, she decided she wanted to try sewing a dress in life size, for her grandmother—who was certain she was too tall and too big for the young and inexperienced Zelda to manage. But Zelda proved her wrong. She designed and created a dress that was a perfect fit—a dress her grandmother loved so much that when she passed away, she was buried in it.
By the time she was 13 years old, Zelda had a reputation as an exceptionally talented pianist and dressmaker. After graduating high school, she moved with her immediate family to White Plains in New York; there, she took a job in her uncle’s tailoring shop. This was an era when Jim Crow segregation was still at its peak, and the titles ‘designer’ or ‘couturier’ were typically reserved for white men. Black women who worked in the industry were only ever thought of as the necessary but low-ranking seamstresses—they were there to do the poorly-paid and repetitive work that involved little to no creativity or design.
But Zelda had plans. Her love for dressmaking had become an essential part of her, and her ambitious nature told her that there was a way forward that would allow her to fulfil herself creatively as well as financially. In the 1930’s she took a job as a stock room worker at an upscale clothing boutique. It was a job that was on the bottom rung of the fashion ladder, but she was determined that in the position she would be able to find opportunities to prove her talents, and thus climb the ranks to what she truly wanted to be: a designer.
“It wasn’t a pleasant time. But the idea was to see what I could do.” – Zelda Wynn Valdes on her first boutique job
Zelda’s commitment and self-belief paid off: she eventually became the boutique’s first Black sales clerk and tailor. In this role she gained a reputation for the precision of her tailoring as well as her sharp design eye and advice. While some visitors to the store were apprehensive or dismissive about a Black woman working there, Zelda built a clientele that was devoted to her. It was a clientele Zelda carefully cultivated in order to serve her next move—a move that would forever change the trajectory of her life and career.
In 1948 Zelda launched her own boutique, becoming the first Black person to own a store on the famed Broadway in Manhattan. Her sister Mary Barbour acted as staff supervisor.
The boutique was called Zelda Wynn, and sold Zelda’s own designs: low-cut and body-hugging gowns that emphasised a woman’s curves. Zelda used the finest silk, organza, crepe, jersey, and satin, incorporating hand beading and sequins. The appeal lay in Zelda’s ability to custom-fit her gowns to women of all shapes and sizes. She made each woman that walked through her doors feel like the bombshells that were becoming popular figures throughout the entertainment industry.
“I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful.” – Zelda Wynn Valdes
The boutique was popular, but Zelda increased her clientele by arranging fashion shows for various Black social clubs, as well as fundraisers for local groups. Her garments were always the highlight of these events, and it was a strategic business move, for her boutique became a haven for high-profile Black women—particularly socialites and the wives of famous Black men—who wanted to avoid the racism they had sometimes encountered at white-owned stores. Women like nightclub dancer Edna Mae Robinson, the wife of famed boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Her highest profile client came in 1948, when Maria Ellington walked down the aisle toward her soon-to-be husband Nat King Cole in a wedding dress dubbed by the media ‘Blue Ice’. It was a dress custom made by Zelda. The subsequent coverage resulted in an explosion of celebrity interest in Zelda’s designs, and her clientele soon included some of the top female names in the entertainment business: Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge, and Marlene Dietrich. (To this day, books and websites are prolific with images of these women in Zelda’s custom gowns.)
Her most ongoing business relationship though was with jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Zelda designed for the superstar for 12 years. During that time, she was only ever able to measure her once. Ella’s career kept her so busy that she couldn’t come to Zelda’s store again, but that didn’t stop her from regularly ordering gowns. To get the fit correct, Zelda would study the most recent newspaper photographs of Ella and make a skilled guess on how her size and shape might have changed. A difficult endeavour, but one that Zelda’s keen eye never got wrong.
“She always said they fit and she’d order more, always three at a time. I never had more than three to four days to finish the gowns. I am pleased to say that I never missed a delivery.” – Zelda Wynn Valdes on dressing Ella Fitzgerald
Zelda’s business savvy didn’t just benefit her own career; it aided in the careers of her clients. She assisted in maintaining the bombshell image that women like Mae West had cultivated, but she was also instrumental in the creation of an entirely new image for cabaret singer Joyce Bryant. It was Zelda who suggested that a more sensual style would help Joyce’s career path, and she designed the singer’s gowns accordingly, making them so fitted that Joyce couldn’t actually sit down in them. The new image catapulted Joyce to mainstream fame: Life magazine did a feature on her, and the press bestowed her with the nickname ‘the black Marilyn Monroe’.
Zelda was not content to revel just in her own success and that of her clients, though; she had a desire to assist other aspiring Black designers, particularly women. In 1949 she was instrumental in forming the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, a coalition designed to help Black female designers build a network in the otherwise mostly white and male industry.
“Zelda falls in line with some of the most influential designers of the era.” – Constance C.R. White, author and executive fashion director
The 1950’s saw continued success for Zelda. She moved her store to Midtown, where it was adjacent to Carnegie Hall, and rebranded as Chez Zelda. This was, again, a strategic business decision that Zelda had made, and yet again one that paid off, for the new location helped build further exclusivity around her brand. She was more in demand than ever, had a staff of nine dressmakers, and was charging nearly $1,000 per couture gown— a figure her clients were happy to pay.
Zelda’s ability to enhance every woman’s physique had become so renowned that it caught the attention of Playboy founder and mogul Hugh Hefner. He was looking to open a Playboy-branded club, and wanted it to be synonymous with the image of the magazine: the women working there had to be beautiful, desirable, and somewhat of a fantasy. There was much discussion on the ‘look’ for these women, and eventually Hefner personally commissioned Zelda to sew the bunny costume that was decided on. It is said Zelda and her team of dressmakers fabricated at least 35 costumes. One of those 35 became the original Playboy bunny look that was debuted at the opening of the first Playboy club in Chicago. It was a look that became an iconic—and sometimes controversial—piece of imagery worldwide.
“The femininity that Zelda promulgated into her designs was very powerful.” – Constance C.R. White, author and executive fashion director
The Playboy bunny outfit that Zelda and her team made ended up becoming the first commercial uniform to be registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
The bunny look was an instant hit, and Zelda went on host fashion shows at the Playboy clubs. These events were billed as ‘Zelda at the Playboy’. There was no need for an explanation as to who Zelda was.
The Playboy success and relationship marked a rare moment in the world of design: traditionally, most designers worked in either costume or fashion, with the skills demanded being so different that switching between the two was exceedingly difficult. But Zelda saw huge levels of success and renown in both areas. She continued to work in both couture and costume, designing looks for classical singer Marian Anderson’s concert recitals, and a look for the actress Constance Bennett when she was being presented to Queen Elizabeth.
“And being able to master both costume design and street wear was remarkable and part of her staying power.” – Constance C.R. White, author and executive fashion director
The 1960’s showed no sign of slowing down for Zelda. Still wanting to encourage the future prospects of aspiring creatives, she directed the Fashion and Design Workshop of the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Communities Teams. In this role she not only taught costume designing skills, but also facilitated fabric donations so the students attending the workshop could get their own work underway. At the same time, she reached back to her early love of classical music and cofounded the Harlem Youth Orchestra.
Zelda’s creativity and skills were still being recognised by those in the entertainment and arts industries, and in 1970 Zelda was approached by Arthur Mitchell. An influential and groundbreaking man in his own right, Arthur was the first African-American principal dancer to perform in the New York City Ballet. He had gone on to found the first African-American classical ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and now wanted Zelda to design the costumes for the company’s productions.
“I marvelled at the discipline, knowledge, and strength she had. She takes the same kind of care and determination in sewing as I do in dancing.” – Arthur Mitchell on Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda, of course, put her own touch on it: she did away with the tradition of pink ballet tights, and instead dyed the dancers’ tights to match their individual skin tones. It was a radical move for an artform that had always championed uniformity—and based that uniformity on the white dancers that made up the majority of the ballet world. Today, thanks to people like Zelda, both tights and ballet shoes are available in an array of skin colours—although many dancers still struggle with costumes that have pink-toned inserts that are supposed to disappear as ‘nude’ against the skin.
“Zelda’s achievements deserve to be recognised because no one else was doing what she was doing. She was a true pioneer.” – Nichelle Gainer, author of Vintage Black Glamour
Zelda closed her couture business in 1989, when her travels with the ballet company became too frequent for her to continue running her boutique. She stayed as designer and wardrobe supervisor for the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death in 2001. By then, she had designed costumes for over 80 dance productions, and visited 22 countries.
A businesswoman, couturier, costume designer, arts activist, and pianist, Zelda Wynn Valdes created iconic images that are still recognised around the world today. She blazed a trail for designers that came after her, and did everything in her power to uplift those in similar or less fortunate circumstances. The many worlds within the arts and entertainment industries would look very different today if it weren’t for her hard work, dedication, and determination to think beyond the confines of tradition.
Further Reading – Non-Fiction:
The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th-Century Women Designers by Nancy Deihl
Threads of Time, the Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers From 1850 to the Present by Rosemary Reed E. Miller
Dressed: The History of Fashion podcast, Zelda Wynn Valdes, as interview with Nancy Deihl
Build Your Own Table Podcast, Zelda Wynn Valdes
Black Fashion History podcast, S1 E2 The Fit Queen – Zelda Wynn Valdes
Humans in History podcast, S1 E82 Zelda Wynn Valdes
Vixen: Black Beauty and Pop Culture podcast, S5 E8 Fashion’s Hidden Figure: Zelda Wynn Valdes
Bias Bender podcast, 20 – Zelda Wynn Valdes and Traffic Stopping Fashion ft. Olivia Anthony
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