Black History In Fashion | Zelda Zynn Valdes

Zelda Wynn Valdes, where do we start with her? Should we start with her perfecting the variations of mermaid style gowns she designed or her being the designer of the sexiest costume/work uniform in history? I guess I'll start with the beginning.

Zelda Wynn recalled her early life experiences with designing in a New York Times article in 1994. She said her grandmother, who was a fashionable lady, inspired her. Wynn designed a dress for her Grandma one day, although her grandmother said "Daughter, you can't sew for me, I'm too tall and too big," Wynn went for it anyways and her Grandmother loved it. She then went on to work for her uncle, at his tailoring shop. She worked her way from a stock girl, all the way to being a tailor and seamstress. Wynn said during her time in the shop, she did experience that doubt because of her color. Clients would come and second guess her skills, but she said, "It wasn't a pleasant time, But the idea was to see what I could do." And she showed exactly what she could do.
In 1948, she opened her own boutique, "Chez Melda" on what is now Broadway and West 158th Street.  Zelda Wynn was the first African American designer to have her own shop on that street in New York City and that was the beginning of her prime.  From that time she begin designing for the beautiful Josephine Baker, Joyce Bryant and Ella Fitzgerald just to name a few. Wynn also had quite the body size knowledge, may be a superpower. For Ella Fitzgerald, she only measured her once in the twelve years of designing for her. Wynn said "I had to do everything by imagination for her. She liked fancy clothes with beads and appliqués. I'd just look at the papers and say, 'Gee, she's gotten larger.' " That is some knowledge, and bravery. In 1949, she became the president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers for the New York Chapter. During the next years she'd teach a sewing class to children in Harlem, continue designing dresses for many women, then moving her shop to Midtown.
In 1960, Playboy revealed the official costume for their ladies. This costume was made from rayon-satin, and was a strapless one piece, on a merry widow corset. The Playboy Costume is the only service uniform that was granted a patent from the United States Patent Office. It has been said that Zelda Wynn took part in designing this iconic costume. 

*Now, I personally have learned to do my research. And it was a little tedious and annoying to find no place where it was documented that she said out her mouth "I designed this costume." The only source I found that may be citable, is on this page, The Press Release of "Threads of Time Fabric History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers" by Rosemary E. Reed Miller.  I don't have access to the book but this page says that Wynn did have a connection to the Playboy costume. The author is also a history major, and it's stated that she did research the information she wrote about. Unfortunately, everywhere else, and in Kathryn Leigh Scott's "The Bunny Years" it simply says Hugh Hefner and his team had an idea for this outfit, had the base designed (regional costume) and then they hired dress designer Renée Blot to update the original costume. Not trying to make this a controversial topic but I also did want to go off of facts because history depends on real information.

Returning to the life of Zelda Wynn Valdes, in 1970 she was asked to be Costume Designer for a new performance company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, by Arthur Mitchell. She agreed to be and designed costumes for the company for eighteen years. That was eighty-two ballet productions in over twenty-two countries for Zelda Wynn, between the ages of sixty-five to eighty-three. She retired and closed her business in 1989. She said in that New York Times interview people desired for her to write a book, but she thought it'd be a burden, and she laughed. 

Zelda Wynn Valdes was an amazing designer, humble, and a great one to make history for African Americans in fashion and business. She contributed to the careers for African American Women like Dorothy Dandridge and Joyce Bryant, and she's remembered. 


Photo Sources