African American Fashion: Emancipation to Creation

As of Thursday, June 17, 2021, Juneteenth is now officially a federal holiday.

Historically known as Jubilee, Freedom, Liberation or Emancipation Day, June 19th, commemorates the end of slavery in the south in 1865; and until two days ago it was never nationally recognized.

For this reason, today we’re using our platform to highlight some of the unsung Black fashion cognoscenti.

Firstly, Ann Lowe. In 1950, Lowe opened her first boutique in Harlem and became the go-to designer for the American socialité — from the Rockefellers to the Roosevelts, the du Ponts to the Whitneys, she was called "society's best kept secret." Born in Alabama in 1898, she learned her dressmaking skills from her mother, who became a free woman in 1860. 

But her most infamous creation was worn by Jacqueline Bouvier who in 1953 instantaneously became a fashion icon as she waltzed down the aisle to become Mrs. John F. Kennedy. 

Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis Wedding Dress JFK

While considered one of the most iconic bridal gowns, when Kennedy was asked who made her dress, she reportedly responded “it’s not haute couture…a colored dressmaker did it.” And while Ann Lowe should have been elevated to the heights of Dior and Chanel, this pioneering couturier endured despite racial animus.

In fact, Lowe famously told Ebony magazine “I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them…I am not interested in sewing for social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue.” She was an original unapologetic #STUNRBabe.

 

Stephen Burrows Black American Fashion Designer Diana Ross Cher

Next, we highlight the incredible Stephen Burrows. Born in 1943 Burrows is acclaimed for for his innovative fusing of color blocking with matte jersey at the height of disco. His sheath-like, body-hugging designs helped usher in American independence from European influence and helped position American fashion as a force. In 1970 "Stephen Burrows World" debuted at Henri Bendel to international acclaim resulting in Coty awards in 1973, 1974 and 1977.  His bold and bright collections not only drew the attention of celebrities like Diana Ross and Cher, but embodied the glitterati era of Studio 54 nightlife.

 

Finally, there is Patrick Kelly who once stated "I want my clothes to make you smile." Inspired by his southern roots, Kelly's design aesthetic reclaimed and infused racist tropes including a recreation of Josephine Baker’s infamous Banana Skirt. Like his muse he migrated to France to find success and though he initially struggled in Paris; freelancing for Paco Rabanne and doing all sorts of bits and pieces to get by, success was eventually realized when he became the first American designer to be carried in the French boutique Victoire. 

Patrick Kelly Josephine Baker

This led to his first feature in ELLE France and his first show in 1985. And while Kelly's pieces became favorites amongst the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna, and Princess Diana, his life was unfortunately cut short in 1990 by the brutality of the AIDS epidemic. 

Today, we honor and celebrate these icons who persevered in spite of the varying degrees of discrimination they faced. Let us not forget the creatives that paved the way and shaped fashion history forever.

Their history is worth knowing.