Dmae Lo Roberts looks at the Black contributions to fashion design throughout American history with writer, publisher and fashion expert Rhonda P. Hill.
Hill is an American fashion industry analyst, the curator/founder of EDGE Fashion Intelligence, and publishing editor of EDGExpo.com. EDGE, the acronym for Emerging Designers Get Exposed, is an international platform advancing the field of fashion in artistic values, cultural significance, and sustainability through the exposure of emerging designers.
Hill takes an anthropological lens to look at how “the power of fashion has the unique ability to transform identity and culture.” Hill champions the idea of making the art of contemporary fashion more accessible by exposing design excellence through the public venue of an art gallery or museum. As a curator, Hill’s project, Blurred Boundaries: Fashion as an Art, exhibited at GraySpace Gallery, Santa Barbara, California, was viewed as a museum-quality exhibit showcasing fashion as an art, on par with any other visual art.
In this podcast, we’ll hear about her varied career path and what it was like for a Black woman working in the industry from the 1970s through the 1990s. And we’ll get a history tour through her impressive pictorial and well-researched series of articles A Study of Eight, The Untold American Story.
Her recently published a series of eight articles called A Study of Eight, The Untold American Story shows how historically Black fashion makers and influencers used the power of fashion to transform their identity and culture from the 1880s through the 1980s. Hill says it shows how they “fought to be included, respected, and recognized in society.” A Study of Eight was also showcased on NPR’s Here & Now program.
Hill’s long career as an American fashion industry analyst started in the late 1970s. She pursued a fashion career when she was one of the few Black women in the industry. She started professionally as a contemporary fashion buyer at Macy’s in San Francisco. She was recognized and awarded for her leadership in fashion merchandising, holding executive positions at Warner Bros. Studio Stores, Agron, Inc., a licensee for Adidas, Levi Strauss & Co., and as Vice President for Disney Direct Marketing, Disney Consumer Products division of The Walt Disney Company. In 1998, Hill became the first African-American Vice President of Disney Consumer Products; Disney celebrated her achievement in the July 1999 Black Enterprise magazine. Today she focuses her passion for the fashion industry via the EDGE platform, which she says takes an intelligent approach to countering the superfluous and frivolous reputation the industry is known for with engagement and educational tools on more substantive issues. Hill actively promotes emerging fashion designers of color and raises their visibility in the fashion world.
Dmae Lo Roberts talked with Hill about her eight-part history series, A Study of Eight, The Untold American Story. Hill says she’d always wanted to highlight the Black contributions to fashion history for Black History Month. The pandemic and the fight for social justice gave her the time and the impetus.
“What really moved me along was what we all witnessed last year … the injustices that were done to the marginalized communities and what happened to George Floyd. So I just felt like this was the time. I had the time and this was the time to do it. I always wanted to elevate those voices, those hidden voices that we really didn’t know about, especially when it comes to black fashion makers who really did make a contribution to fashion.”
Hill begins the eight-part series with the building of the cotton industry on the backs of Black labor, and the importance of the first Black-owned cotton mill. She focuses the second piece on W.E.B Du Bois’ photojournalistic exhibition at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris that changed the perception of Black America.
Du Bois “wanted to mitigate the image that around the world Black Americans were ex-slaves…sharecroppers….working in disadvantaged areas,” Hill says. “What he wanted to do was show that we were lawyers and doctors and school teachers and business people, and that we were a middle-class that was upwardly mobile. And the way he did this was, he had these beautiful portraits of African-Americans dressed beautifully, hair, makeup, hats, jewelry. And he wanted everyone to understand that we, too, can acquire fine art. We, too, can have nice homes we too can have fine jewelry.”
Hill also focuses on the first Black designers in the U.S., beginning in the mid-19th century: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, best-known as Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidant; Fannie Criss Payne, who was known as the premiere dressmaker of Richmond, Virginia; Anne Cole Lewis, designer of Jackie Kennedy’s iconic wedding dress; and Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes, the first Black woman to open her own design shop, in 1948.
“Their market was really targeted to those that really could pay the bills,” she says. “I mean, white women who wanted to have a dressmaker, and many of them, when you look back at what they did, a lot of the fashion press, they speak highly of these women and the quality of what they make. And back then they were defined as dressmakers and seamstresses. Today, they would be defined as designers.”
Hill also focused on the little-known history of Mildred Blount, the first Black member of the Motion Picture Costumers Union and the designer of the hats worn by the character Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Blount also had many famous clients such as Marian Anderson and Gloria Vanderbilt.
“In 1939, (Blount) had a beautiful body of work of these miniature hats and she presented them at the World’s Fair at the time. And the story goes that David Selznick’s wife was at the World’s Fair and saw her hats and the hats really depicted the film Gone with the Wind. So she, somehow she told her husband and he got in touch with John Fredericks. And the history is that Mildred did make those hats. She made most of the hats that Scarlet O’Hara wore. However, she did not get credit for them.”
Hill also writes about how representation mattered with the ground-breaking first Black supermodels, such as Donyale Luna, Naomi Ruth Sims, and Beverlly Johnson, during the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s.
“In 1963, you had the assassination of Kennedy. You also had the assassination of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist. In 1964, you have the passing of the Civil Rights Act. In 1965, that’s when Donyale Luna graced Harper’s Bazaar. Now that was an illustration, not actual photo of her, but still that was her. And then in 1966, she was on the cover of British Vogue and her actual photo. But what’s interesting about that when you look at it and she’s got her hand over her nose and mouth and eyes. So here again, it’s like the industry was saying, yes, you know, we want to have Black on the cover, but let’s kind of make it a little bit subtle.”
Hill also features the Ebony Fashion Fairs that would travel to 30 cities each year during the 51-year lifetime of Ebony magazine from 1958-2009, and employed Black models and introduced plus-size models. Hill ends the penultimate article of A Study of Eight, The Untold American Story with the stories of the Battle of Versailles Fashion show in 1973, in which the top American and French designers added artistic elements such as music and movement to the runway show. The most noteworthy element for Black American history is that, while the show included only one Black designer, out of 36 models, 10 were Black.
Hill ends the study of eight with a focus on designer Willi Smith of WilliWear in the 1980s. One of the most commercially successful designers of the era, Smith collaborated on projects in other art disciplines such as dance and film.
- Read the complete series A Study of Eight, The Untold American Story at https://edgexpo.com/2021/01/28/fashion-culture-a-study-of-eight-the-untold-american-story/
- Find out more about emerging designers and sustainability in design at Rhonda P. Hill’s site: https://edgexpo.com/.