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How Zelda Wynn Valdes reinvented fashion

This designer you’ve never heard of was the go-to designer of the midcentury freakum dress, and made sure every Playboy Bunny’s seam was pressed to perfection.

 

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Love it or hate it, the infamous Playboy bunny suit — iconic strapless corset, bunny ears, pantyhose, bow tie, collar, cuffs, and fluffy cottontail — will forever be immortalized in popular culture as a symbol of female seduction and allure.

But what you probably didn’t know was that Zelda Wynn Valdes, a black woman, sewed the original costumes — and that the late Hugh Hefner personally commissioned her to do it.

“Fitting curvaceous women was what Zelda did, so it was a perfect fit,” says Nancy Deihl, author of “The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovery 20th-Century Women Designers” and director of New York University’s costume studies program. “Even though she’s [often] erroneously credited with the costume’s [original] design, it’s been the key thing that’s led to the rediscovery of her.”

But of course, there’s so much more to this incredible woman’s legacy than Hefner’s vision and Playboy lifestyle. The eldest of seven children, Valdes (born as Zelda Christian Barbour) was raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she learned to sew from watching her grandmother’s seamstress. Her first attempt at design came when she offered to create a dress for her grandmother. “She said, ‘Daughter, you can’t sew for me. I’m too tall and too big,'” Valdes recalled in a 1994 interview with The New York Times, but the dress she created was a perfect fit. After graduating from Chambersburg High School in 1923, her immediate family moved to White Plains, New York, where Valdes worked at her uncle’s tailoring shop. In the 1930s, she worked as a stock girl at an upscale boutique, where she eventually became the first black sales clerk and tailor. In 1948, Valdes opened her own boutique, called Chez Zelda, making her the first black person to own a store on Broadway in Manhattan.

In her store, Valdes sold her signature low-cut, body hugging gowns, which unapologetically extenuated a woman’s curves. Valdes’ sexy-but-sophisticated dresses were worn and adored by Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, to name a few. She even designed Maria Ellington’s “Blue Ice” wedding dress when she walked down the aisle and tied the knot with jazz singer Nat King Cole in 1948.

Read more of my latest piece for Shondaland [here]. 

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