The Original “Freakum Dress” Maker Zelda Wynn Valdes
February is Black History Month! And while it’s ridiculous to try to fit all the fantastic contributions black folks have made to not only American fashion but to overall American history over the past 400 years into the shortest month of the year. We also realize how essential it is to shine an ample bright light on as many of the accomplishments African Americans have made to history. All while being enslaved, Jim Crowed, suppressed, overlooked, and counted out– so that newer generations understand and never forget how powerful faith, passion, and determination mixed with perseverance can overcome all obstacles set before them.
“Your story is what you have, what you will always have; it is something to own,” said former First Lady Michelle Obama in her best-selling book Becoming. The story of black culture for a very long time is all we had. During the early 1900s up into the mid-60s and the Civil Rights Movement, black bodies, faces, ideas, and stories were not considered “mainstream,” and therefore was often left out of the conversation. However, that doesn’t mean black culture and fashion were not present. It just means the black innovators and creators were not receiving the credit for their talents due to the segregated American mentality forcing many black designers to create their lane. That was not the case for Ms. Zelda Wynn Valdes of New York.
Zelda, a native of Pennsylvania PA., was the first black person to open her boutique in 1948 in Manhattan, New York. Here is where she designed for entertainment powerhouses like; Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, and Eartha Kitt, to name just a few. But Ms. Zelda’s most notable client, however, was none other than Mr. Playboy himself, Hugh Heffner, who summoned her talents to create the legendary and most recognizable bunny suit ever designed.
She unapologetically designed form-fitting, low-cut, sexy but sophisticated looks for the curvy woman and masterfully created for both the fashion world and designed costumes for more than 80 productions modernizing the look of ballerinas on and off the stage.
Zelda’s story is a remarkable one, especially for the period when a black female designers’ highest platform was “seamstress.” I’m left to wonder how many more “Zelda’s” are out there we don’t know anything about?
Thank goodness we’ve come to learn just how powerful and monumentally influential our story is; its afros and braids, Zoot-Suits, sweat suits, door knockers, and big hoops, black culture is without a doubt American culture!