Women’s History Month Feature
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
Zelda Wynn Valdes
A Pioneer for Females in Fashion Design
Sofia Garcia '23
Zelda Wynn Valdes was born on June 28, 1905, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she spent most of her youth. Growing up, Zelda was an extremely talented musician so it was quite a surprise when she discovered fashion design, which soon became her new passion. Young Valdes learned how to sew by watching her grandmother’s seamstress and eventually decided that she would sew a dress for her grandmother who, according to Zelda, told her that she wouldn’t be able to because she was “too tall and too big.” But to her astoundment, Zelda crafted a dress that fit her grandmother’s height and curves perfectly— so perfectly that her grandmother was buried in it at her death. After graduating from high school, Valdes moved to White Plains, New York where she put herself to work, tailoring in her Uncle’s shop and rising up the ranks in an upscale boutique where she became the first black sales clerk and tailor. Zelda Wynn Valdes recognized that there were few opportunities for black designers—particularly female black designers— and in 1949 formed and led the National Association for Fashion and Accessory Design (NAFAD). Its goal was to promote and empower black designers to navigate through the arduous fashion industry. A few years later, Valdes opened a boutique called Chez Zelda in Broadway, Manhattan. This was a prestigious accomplishment for not only a fashion
designer, but a black woman, because she was the first African-American to own a store in the area. From here, Valdes’ career flourished, catching the eyes of Hollywood stars and musicians such as Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, and Mae West. She designed the dress pictured to the left, that Marie Ellington famously wore down the aisle at her wedding with Nat King Cole. She designed the dress that Joyce Bryant would wear and be nicknamed “black Marilyn Monroe.” Valdes recalls that while working with Ella Fitzgerald, she only had one fitting with her due to Ella’s busy schedule, so she worked with her press photos to observe her figure changes and still gave her the perfect fit every time. Despite having a long and successful career, Valdes is most well-known for being the creator of the iconic Playboy bunny costumes—a claim that has been widely disputed amongst cultural scholars. Although many debate on how much of the costume was made from her, Valdes undoubtedly left her mark on the pieces. Later in life, Zelda Wynn Valdes gave back to the New York community by teaching fashion design classes to teenagers and co-founding the Harlem Youth Orchestra. She spent the last 20 years of her life touring with the Dance Theater of Harlem and designing costumes for the dancers before her death in September, 2001.
I cannot believe that I am just now learning about Zelda Wynn Valdes. She has contributed a great deal to the fashion industry and has worked with some of the most prestigious actors and musicians of the twentieth century. I think that what makes Zelda so special is that she rose from a working-class family and persisted while being faced with discrimination-amidst the era of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Her long life (1905-2001) really puts into perspective how recent segregation and the civil rights era was and how this still affects and sets back many people of color. I admire how Zelda was able to find and create beauty through all of the hatred and racism that she experienced. But what I admire most about her is how she gave back to the New York City community by teaching youth fashion classes and starting a youth orchestra as well as the African-American community of fashion designers. At the time, there were few spaces that highlighted African American artists so I love that Zelda took time out of her busy career to make these spaces. As someone very passionate about ballet, I was aware that black dancers had to paint their pointe shoes brown because brown pointe shoes were not commonly sold. Keep in mind that
most professional dancers go through two to four pointe shoes per week so if a dancer’s skin tone did not match the baby pink of their shoes, they would have to purchase foundation from the drugstore and spend time and money painting each shoe. This only started to change within the past few years when major pointe shoe companies started offering a small selection of brown shoes. However, I learned that it was Zelda who came up with the concept of dyeing tights and coloring pointe shoes brown to better match the dancers of the Harlem Dance Company. In doing my research about Zelda, I am fascinated by the fact that she never married. Zelda met some of the most sought after celebrities but never got married and I think this is because her true love was designing costumes and fashion in which women could feel special.
Zelda Wynn Valdes was a trailblazer for both women and black people in the fashion
industry. At the time, in this field, males were given high positions like “couturier” while women were usually placed in the inescapable box of “seamstress.” Not only did Valdes break open this box with full force, but she also held it open for other women of color. For example, Valdes was the first black sales clerk and tailor ever for the luxury New York boutique in which she worked, making it more possible for other women of color to hold high positions, especially in this industry. One of her most significant contributions was forming and leading the National Association for Fashion and Accessory Design (NAFAD) in 1949. This organization ultimately became country-wide and opened up an abundance of opportunities for young fashion designers who, due to their race, lacked the resources to grow. It created a safe space for women to network and promote each other,
raised funds, and gave scholarships to students. This organization stands as a pillar of how intrepid and determined African-American women were, to make a place for themselves in an industry dominated by racist, classist, white men. Valdes revolutionized attire for black dancers in the industry by dyeing tights and coloring pointe shoes to match their skin tones. Without this contribution we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the point of selling brown tights and pointe shoes as soon as we have. It’s important to not lose sight of one of her most valuable accomplishments— helping black women love their bodies. Her dresses were so sought after by women because, unlike most clothes at the time, they didn’t conceal curves— they accentuated them. She encouraged women to embrace their bodies. And this contribution is priceless.
“I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful” - Zelda Wynn Valdes - 1994 New York Times Interview
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