“What becomes a legend most?” That was the tagline of now-vintage ads for Blackglama mink. But if you were a black female entertainer at the height of your fame between the 1940s and 1960s, chances were you found your most legendary looks courtesy of designer Zelda Wynn Valdes.
Born in 1905, Wynn Valdes was the eldest of seven children raised in Chambersburg, Pa. After she took an interest in sewing under the tutelage of her grandmother’s seamstress, one of Wynn Valdes’ first designs was for her grandmother, who, as Wynn Valdes recounted to the New York Times in 1994, doubted her granddaughter’s ability to design a dress for her “too tall and too big” frame.
Wynn Valdes shocked her by producing a perfect fit.
“She was so happy with that dress,” Wynn Valdes told the Times. “She was buried in it.”
At age 18, Wynn Valdes’ immediate family moved to White Plains, N.Y, where she began working in her uncle’s tailoring business. She’d eventually land a position at an upscale boutique, where she worked her way up from stock girl to being the first black sales clerk and, ultimately, tailor.
Her own boutique, Chez Zelda, would open in 1948 in New York City’s upper Manhattan on West 158th Street and Broadway, making Wynn Valdes the first black business owner on that storied thoroughfare. There, she would reach her apex, designing for some of the top talents and socialites of the day, including Ella Fitzgerald (whom she purportedly only measured once in the 12 years they worked together), Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Mae West, Marian Anderson, Eartha Kitt and Josephine Baker.
Notably, Wynn Valdes also played a major role in crafting the showstopping image of singer Joyce Bryant, the silver-haired songstress then known for her renditions of the sexy standards “Drunk With Love” and “Love for Sale.” As reported by Shondaland:
When the two first met, Valdes suggested that exuding some sensuality would jump-start Bryant’s career—and she was right. A white sequined gown adorned with red chiffon perfectly complemented the silver-haired beauty’s hourglass figure. Another signature look featured white embroidery on a strapless pale pink gown, flowing with pink chiffon and creating a mermaid effect. The dresses were so tight and well fitted that she couldn’t sit down while wearing them, but it was a small price to pay for the bold statement they made. Bryant’s newfound sex symbol status earned her a spread in Life magazine, as well as the nicknames “black Marilyn Monroe” and “bronze blond bombshell.”
Speaking with the Times, Wynn Valdes, then 88 and still working, said simply, “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful.”
Indeed, Wynn Valdes’ specialty was creating incredibly sensual, formfitting gowns that celebrated the female body. It should come as no surprise, then, that in 1960, Wynn Valdes was personally commissioned by Hugh Hefner to design his cocktail waitresses’ iconic “bunny” costumes for his Playboy Club.
But even at the height of her success, Wynn Valdes was also paying it forward, founding a sewing program in Harlem that taught thousands of children. It was through her teaching that she met Arthur Mitchell, the first black principal dancer of the New York City Ballet and founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 1970, Mitchell recruited the then-65-year-old Wynn Valdes to design the costumes for his company, telling the Times in 1994, “I marveled at the discipline, knowledge and strength she had.”
In 1989, Chez Zelda, then located in midtown Manhattan, would close, but Wynn Valdes would continue to design for the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death in 2001, at the age of 96. During her long and incredible career, she was also co-founder (at the request of Mary McLeod Bethune) and eventual president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, a coalition and support group for black designers working in an industry that frequently sought to exclude them.
To further understand the profound impact of Zelda Wynn Valdes, The Glow Up spoke with writer and fashion historian Nichelle Gainer, author of the books Vintage Black Glamour (named after her popular blog) and Vintage Black Glamour: Gentleman’s Quarters.
The Glow Up: We’ve recently seen a renewed interest in the work of pioneering black female designers Zelda Wynn Valdes and Ann Lowe. Why do you think their stories are resurfacing now?
Nichelle Gainer: I think the pervasiveness of social content has everything to do with it. People are exposed to more information and images these days that they would have had to find in a book just a decade ago. As I researched my books in the years before some material became more widely available online, I knew there would be lots of other people who would be interested in a Zelda Wynn Valdes or Ann Lowe, just like me. We just weren’t exposed to it in our history books or even some early fashion magazines. Some newspapers deliberately omitted Ms. Lowe’s name as they published story after story praising Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress.
TGU: Wynn Valdes designed one of the most iconic and hotly debated uniforms in history, as well as gowns that unapologetically celebrated a woman’s shape. Do you have any thoughts about her aesthetic and, specifically, what it meant for black women to be dressed by Valdes?
NG: My thought on the black women in particular who wore her designs—Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Maria Cole (Wynn Valdes designed the $700 ice-blue satin dress Cole wore when she married Nat King Cole in 1948)—probably were attracted to her considerable skills, and the fact that she was also black had to help—and not just in the “I’m rooting for everybody black” sense.
I’m [also] thinking it was probably a relief to deal with someone black on that level who would give you the respect you deserved with no caveats, in contrast to other designers and their staffs in the 1940s and 1950s who were not, ahem, used to dealing respectfully with black people as clients. In part, that is what I think it meant for [black celebrities] to be dressed by Ms. Wynn Valdes.
For black women in those days who were not celebrities but could afford her, I’m sure her glittering clientele was a major selling point. Also, the fact that Ms. Wynn Valdes could go from elegant wedding dresses to the Playboy Bunny costumes gives me the impression that she was flexible and practical in her creativity.
TGU: Why do you think Zelda Wynn Valdes should be considered relevant now, and what can we glean from her story?
NG: Well, I’d say that she was relevant all along, just underexposed to most people. If she were around in this day and age, she may have a booming Instagram account and appear on red carpets with her clients, as we saw with the recent Met Gala.
Most of the known photos of her show her with a measuring tape around her neck, working, so in my opinion, Ms. Wynn Valdes was not widely regarded as a designer-artist in her prime. Women like her were usually reduced to “seamstress.” ... [but] Zelda Wynn Valdes was a true pioneer, and I hope that she continues to be recognized as such, especially by emerging designers and other artists of color.