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'Out at CHM' unveils Ebony Fashion Fair
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Melissa Wasserman
2013-05-22

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Ebony magazine strutted off its glossy pages at Chicago History Museum's (CHM's) "Fierce and Fabulous: A New Look at the Ebony Fashion Fair" as part of the museum's "Out at CHM" series May 16.

The program's content explored how African-American and LGBTQ histories mix through fashion with the Ebony Fashion Fair as its influence.

Joy Bivins, curator of CHM's current "Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair" exhibit; Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and American Studies at Indiana University Marlon M. Bailey, Ph.D.; and Tommy Walton, one half of PriceWalton Couture Lab's fashion design duo, each spoke on topics tying to the event's theme. Roderick K. Hawkins, vice president of external relations for the Chicago Urban League and a member of CHM's Out Committee, was the event's moderator.

"Personally, I grew up reading Ebony and Jet magazines, even watching their television show they had one time called, 'Ebony Jet Showcase' and I saw a fashion show when I was younger and my organization hosted the Ebony Fashion Fair in Chicago in 2008," said Hawkins. "So for me it's a very personal connection to my culture, my community, and of course happen to be Black gay men, yes, you're fascinated by the expressions of beauty that you saw on the runway as well, so for me, all my worlds came together."

The event drew a diverse crowd. The topic, Hawkins said, transcends race, gender, sexual orientation and any other labels because fashion, beauty and positive images speak to everybody.

Each panelist, although he or she covered varying topics, each fondly spoke about Ebony magazine and the presence it has had in their lives. Bivins' portion focused on the history of the Johnson Publishing Company and the Ebony Fashion Fair. Bailey discussed ballroom culture and the gender and sexual identity categories within that community, which he has been studying and focuses on in the book manuscript he is working on called, "Butch Queens up in Pumps: Gender, Performance, and Ballroom Culture in Detroit." Walton shared his own personal story. Growing up on Chicago's South Side with Ebony magazine in the house, which he referred to as "The Book," Walton recalls a frenzy happening at his mother's beauty shop when the Ebony Fashion Fair came to town. In explicit detail, he shared his experience of being a child and seeing Eunice Johnson, founder and director of the Ebony Fashion Fair, in person along with other interesting details about her and her nature. Attendees were also encouraged to participate in a Q&A session following the presentations.

"I think one of the things I was reminded of is the philanthropic aspect of the Ebony Fashion Fair," said Hawkins. "How all of the shows, anytime they went anywhere, they were fundraisers for a local community that supported scholarships and sent Black kids to school and helped keep communities running strong, sometimes we forget that. We do get excited and enthralled with the fashion, but this reminded me of the philanthropic aspect of it.

To end the event with a lively tone, Walton cued the music and emceed a fashion show. Five models donned PriceWalton's hand-made designs, imitating celebrities who have graced the cover of Ebony over the years such as Diana Ross, Josephine, Baker, Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones and Lena Horne.

"Those five icons, especially Josephine Baker and Grace Jones, they have always been the gold mine we pull from," said Walton. "I always use historical references, even Thomas Jefferson's Black mistress. I always use interesting references. This just happened to be the group of Black icons that I chose. The ones I actually chose were on the cover of ebony at one time or another."

Walton is the only living African-American designer commissioned to do a piece for CHM. For the past 10 years, PriceWalton has been working with CHM on fashion related projects and has had clientele in Chicago who have donated whole collections they purchased from the design team for the museum. Walton described himself as a fashion griot—a griot in the African-American tradition is a storyteller who tells stories that are not written down, but passed on from one generation to the next orally.

"Fashion has become the language we [Rodger Price and I] speak," said Walton. "We learned how to speak and it wasn't something we were born with. We learned it and now we speak it in multiple dialects and fashion has opened doors for us around the world. I have taught my class at the Art Institute in Chicago, I've taught my class in five countries. Fashion is my language and I can use that language with people even if they don't speak English. They understand fashion. It is something I feel like I have no choice but to give it."

Walton said with 2,500 garments in CHM's vault, what was seen at the event was just the tip of the iceberg.

Bivins explained that although the "Inspiring Beauty" exhibit, which runs through Jan. 5, 2014, is not necessarily connected to LGBT history in an explicit way, the event served to open up the conversation in terms of what other ways the exhibition could be interpreted.

"I worried in the beginning about participating because I felt like the story we told in the exhibition was a pretty traditional African-American history story," said Bivins. "There was no queering of the content per se, so I was a little concerned about what I would bring to the table, but I still think, people have such a strong connection to so many of the themes within the exhibition, that there was a lot of places people could insert their own stories and remember what it was like for them to see these things or to read Ebony magazine."

Bivins said all the stories shared at the event, mainly from the other speakers, allowed for an opportunity for people to get different perspectives and learn new things.

"I think all of these stories really just highlight the fact that we live in a world where often we live in small, small spaces and we are who we are and we do what we do and we forget that people are doing things that are completely different within their own communities," said Bivins. "So, just like Ebony Fashion Fair, there are many people who don't know that show, but it's something I grew up with. I think that all of it provides an opportunity for us to get to know each other better through history."


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