Fashion legend ZELDA WYNN VALDES (1905 – 2001) was the first black designer and costumer to open her own shop, which was the first black-owned business on Broadway in 1948. Her sexy, hip-hugging designs have been worn by many popular, world famous entertainers such as recent CL History Spotlight Joyce Bryant, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, Mae West, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt and Sarah Vaughan, among many others.
Born Zelda Wynn in 1905, she got her start in fashion creating outfits for her dolls as a child in Chambersburg, Pa., and began cutting out patterns from newspaper. She studied her grandmother’s work as a seamstress & also worked in her uncle’s tailoring shop. She offered to create a dress for her grandmother, who said she couldn’t because she was too tall & too big. Zelda did it anyway, and her grandmother loved it so much that she was buried in it.
Accentuating the female form, her work speaks for itself and often contained a mermaid quality starting off tight and fitting at the top and flaring with dramatic ruffles at the bottom.
“I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful,” she told a New York Times reporter later in her career.
But it wasn’t a pleasant time when she landed her first job at a fancy clothier, she recalled in the same article. Some of the clients doubted her abilities as a young black woman, but Zelda was determined to show them what she could do. Over time, many had seen what she could do and wanted her to do the same for them. She opened her shop on Broadway and West 158th Street with her sister, Mary Barbour, who worked as her assistant while also supervising the staff.
During the rise in her professional career she caught the attention of Hugh Hefner, who hired her to design the first Playboy Bunny costumes in the 1950s. Zelda also played an integral role in the formation of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, which has inspired many to continue with the vision and carry on the legacy of pursuing exciting careers in the fashion industry.
At 65, when most others were retiring, Arthur Mitchell, creator of the first black ballet company, asked her to design the uniforms for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She designed costumes and supervised the wardrobe department for the dance troupe for well into her 90s, after closing her business at age 83 because of frequent travel and her sister’s illness and before retiring in 2000.
Zelda Wynn Valdes died at the age of 96 on Sept. 26, 2001, but her lasting contributions to fashion will live on forever.
CELEBRITIES WEARING SOME OF ZELDA’S DESIGNS IN THE 40s, 50s, & 60s
Legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940s wearing on of Zelda’s designs. Zelda spoke of designing for Ella in one of her last interviews with the NY Times, saying:
“I only fit her once in 12 years. I had to do everything by imagination for her. She liked fancy clothes with beads and appliques.”
Singer/actress Dorothy Dandridge. Zelda was her go-to designer!
30s, 40s, 50s Sex symbol Mae West Zelda was one of Mae’s favorite designers because she knew how to accentuate the curves.
Hugh Hefner and the playboy bunnies. Costumes by Zelda.
& More photos of singer Joyce Bryant modeling Zelda’s work in 1953
Special thanx to Judy Tyrus, the Archives Curator at Dance Theatre of Harlem for allowing us to use the top image of Zelda at work in her studio. We really appreciate all of your help!!