When Ebony magazine’s annual Fashion Fair would roll into town, you could be among beautiful black and brown people, experience world-class glamour, and relish the spectacle of cutting-edge fashion — and that was just in the line to get in.

“[There was] dancing, music and lots of flair,” says Camille Ann Brewer, curator of contemporary textile art for George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum, which is hosting the traveling exhibition “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.”

“The [fair] was a call and response with the audience,” she adds. “It wasn’t just the presentation of fashion. It was a cultural event.”

Ebony’s fair, which toured the nation from 1958 to 2009, brought the latest in contemporary fashion to black communities. (Nearly all of the fair’s proceeds went to local charities, which received more than $50 million during the event’s five-decade run.)
Produced by the late Eunice W. Johnson and her late husband, Ebony founder John H. Johnson, the fashion show was an opportunity “to be gregarious and over-the-top,” says Brewer, who attended the fair for the first time in the ’80s and adds that D.C. was always a major stop.

Claudia Watts, a management analyst for the Anacostia Community Museum, which is collaborating on the exhibit, remembers going to the fair as a teen during one of its last stops at the Kennedy Center. (The event ended in 2009 due to financial issues. Eunice Johnson died a few months later.)

“I’d been to fashion shows, but I’d never been to anything like that,” Watts says. “It was bright and bold. It was phenomenal.”
“Inspiring Beauty,” which opened in Chicago in 2013 and has been traveling the country since 2014, pays tribute by showcasing extravagant ensembles originally modeled at Fashion Fairs from such designers as Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, alongside memorabilia, videos and photographs.

Expect “lots of fur, lots of color, lots of dazzle,” Brewer says.

Givenchy by Alexander McQueen (Johnson Publishing Company LLC)

Givenchy by Alexander McQueen, from Fashion Fair 1997-98
For each Fashion Fair, Eunice W. Johnson chose garments for their craftsmanship as well as their beauty. The late McQueen created this silver masterpiece while working as head designer at Givenchy from 1996 to 2001. “The construction of the cloth lends itself to the drape and the beauty of the garment,” says curator Camille Ann Brewer, who is also a weaver. “You can really see the construction, the over and under of the thread.” Despite McQueen’s tumultuous tenure with Givenchy, his work there was met with great critical acclaim.

“I Love Fashion Scandal” (John Alderson)

‘I Love Fashion Scandal’ by Patrick Kelly, from Fashion Fair 1986
The late Kelly was the quintessential ’80s designer, known for brightly colored, body-conscious dresses with outrageous designs. This button-embellished gown coyly evoked the minstrel tradition. The inclusion of Kelly, an openly gay black man, in the show emphasized Johnson’s mission of freedom through creativity. “The show on so many levels provided a level of freedom of expression for people,” Brewer says. “You could be free to be different. You could be free to be you.”

Eunice Johnson at work (Johnson Publishing Company LLC)

Eunice W. Johnson at work, 1970
The exhibition, which opened last week, features plenty of pieces of Johnson ephemera, including this photograph of her at work. The fair was one of her projects when she worked as Ebony’s fashion editor. Her entrepreneurial spirit led her to create the Fashion Fair cosmetics line, still in stores today. “She had a difficult time finding cosmetics for her models because [makeup companies] didn’t sell the whole cosmetic line for darker skin tones,” Brewer says. “Many Asian women bought Fashion Fair too, because CoverGirl and other brands were too pink. [Fashion Fair] had this market for years, probably until the ’80s.”

Stephen Burrows (John Alderson)

Evening dress, ready-to-wear by Stephen Burrows, from Fashion Fair 2007
Fashion Fair was as much a celebration of black culture as it was of fashion. It was important that everyone Johnson worked with, from the models to the musicians, was black. While she strived to bring the latest from the world’s top designers to her black audiences, she also did her best to work with black American designers like Burrows, who made a name for himself during the disco days of the ’70s. This piece, featured in one of the final fairs, blends the sleek, minimalistic trends of the early 2000s with what Burrows — a fixture at Studio 54 — does best: evening wear.

George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum, 701 21st St. NW; through July 24, $8 suggested donation.