“The fair was about using fashion to put forth new ideas about black life and who African-Americans could be and were aspiring to be,” says Joy Bivins, cocurator with Virginia Heaven, of “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” which opens this month at the Chicago History Museum and runs through January 5, 2014. The exhibition delves into the fair’s vast archive, which includes key pieces in the history of modern fashion like an evening ensemble from Saint Laurent’s famous 1977 Chinoiserie collection, a 1968 iridescent pink jumpsuit and purple faux-fur coat by Christian Dior, and a Christian Lacroix–designed Jean Patou evening dress from 1986. “Bringing those garments to a black audience and putting them on black models said not only ‘You can wear these things’ but also ‘You are the standard of beauty,’ ” Bivins says. “It was a revolutionary act.”
Fashion revolutionary was not an obvious career choice for Johnson. The daughter of a surgeon and a schoolteacher, she was born Eunice in Selma, Alabama, in 1916, and graduated from Talladega College with a degree in sociology. While studying for a master’s in social work from Loyola University in Chicago, she met John H. Johnson, the editor of Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company’s internal magazine, who had been raised by a single mother. According to Audrey Smaltz, the head coordinator of and commentator for the fair from 1970 until 1977, Eunice was betrothed to a well-known Atlanta physician at the time. “She liked to joke that she was engaged to a doctor and then she married a man who didn’t finish college,” Smaltz says. It was a smart move: Johnson, the founder of Johnson Publishing Company—owner of Jet and Ebony magazines—would go on to become the first African-American to make the Forbes 400, Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.
Johnson Publishing got its start in 1942, a year after the couple married, when John, using his mother’s furniture as collateral, took out a $500 loan to start Negro Digest, an African-American take on Reader’s Digest. By 1943, the publication’s circulation had reached 50,000, and buoyed by its success, John came up with the concept for an African-American-focused magazine modeled on Life. It was Eunice, the company’s secretary-treasurer, who suggested calling it Ebony. The first issue appeared in 1945 and sold out on the newsstand. In 1951, the company launched the newsweekly Jet.