The Fashion Icons You Never Heard Of

By Lenore Skenazy

April 19, 2018 5 min read

"Who are you wearing?" is a question Oscar contenders answer easily. Their designers are sometimes as famous as they are. But it wasn't always so. For instance, have you heard of Kiviette or Zelda Wynn Valdes?

Neither had I until I got "The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th-Century Women Designers," edited by Nancy Deihl, director of the graduate program in costume studies at New York University. Each chapter focuses on a now-forgotten woman who, often behind the scenes, designed the clothing that changed the way America dressed.

Take, for instance, Kiviette, a New York City native born in 1893 whose career spanned the Jazz Age, two world wars and the rise of Hollywood. Her genius was to toggle between designing costumes for the stage and designing clothes for "real life."

One of her first shows was "Vanity Fair," a 1920 vaudeville review that she produced herself to get more exposure. "A Dazzling Display of Frocks, Frills and Fascinating Femininity" by a "New Genius Designer" declared, well, Kiviette herself. She took out an ad.

It worked. In fact, over time, she became such a trendsetter that society women would go to plays with Kiviette costumes just to see what was chic and new.

But as Dilia Lopez-Gydosh notes in her chapter on the designer, Kiviette was always evolving. And even as she was bringing theatrical design to everyday clothes, she also started bringing everyday clothes to theatrical design. Before Kiviette came along, almost all plays were an excuse to dazzle the crowd with sequins and feathers, no matter what the play was about. It was Kiviette who declared, "Costumes must adhere to the time, place and character of the play." Enough with the feathers!

As successful as Kiviette was downtown, Zelda Wynn Valdes was uptown in Harlem. Wynn, Deihl writes, moved easily between costume design and high fashion, too, creating gowns for such A-list celebrities as Josephine Baker, Mae West, Eartha Kitt, Ruby Dee, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin.

Her first job was in her uncle's tailoring shop in suburban New York. By the age of 30, she had her own dress shop there, advertising as a "Colored Designer of Fashions for Men and Women."

So busy was she with customers from the city that in 1948, she moved her shop to Harlem. It was that same year when Nat King Cole got married — a media event so enormous, writes Deihl, that it "momentarily seemed to suspend the barrier of racial segregation."

Wynn made the dresses for everyone in the bridal party. They were so spectacular that even The New York Times, which rarely wrote about anything "uptown" back then, took note.

One of Wynn's earliest celebrity clients was Ella Fitzgerald. Though Fitzgerald became a loyal customer, she did not come in for fittings, so, Wynn later told a reporter, Wynn would "just look at the papers and say," for example, "Gee, she's gotten larger." Then she would adjust accordingly.

By then, Wynn had relocated her store to West 57th Street near Carnegie Hall and named it Chez Zelda. Her super-tight gowns had made her — and some of her clients — even more famous, including singer Joyce Bryant, whose dresses were so tight she reportedly could not sit down in them.

But Wynn was making news on another front, too — civil rights. She was a co-founder of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers. NAFAD mentored young African-American designers, provided scholarships and held conferences in an effort to connect with the larger American fashion industry.

At age 65, Wynn began designing for the Dance Theatre of Harlem — a job she continued for almost 30 years. One initiative of hers: dyeing the tights to match the skin tone of each dancer, "an aesthetic departure from the standard pale pink of ballet," writes Deihl.

Talk about making a statement with fashion. And those are just two of the firebrands in this book.

Wow.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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