Inspiring Beauty at Chicago History Museum

Patchwork leather in a rainbow of colors sewn into a strapless, floor-length gown. A Victorian-inspired evening dress from 1986 that is business in the front and party in the back. A sharply tailored plaid and sequined men's suit. A jacket of turquoise suede with matching knitted chevron hot pants and thigh-high socks.

These are just a few looks from the Chicago History Museum's extensive upcoming exhibition, Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.

Inspiring Beauty Futurist Looks"Futurist" looks: Andre Courreges (left), Emanuel Ungaro (center) & Pierre Cardin (right)

The most rewarding thing about working at the Chicago History Museum is getting to experience exhibitions as they are still taking form. Inspiring Beauty has been an exquisite experience from beginning to end.

Mannequin getting hair styled for Inspiring Beauty

A mannequin gets her hair styled for the big opening.

I took a moment the other day to walk through the exhibition with Joy Bivins, curator for Inspiring Beauty.

For Joy, the most challenging part of putting this exhibition together was narrowing the show's garment collection down to fewer than 70 pieces. "I wanted to give full breadth of the [Ebony Fashion Fair] show, and make sure to get a representation of all the designers that would be expected."  

Inspiring Beauty 1

We stopped in front of a mannequin outfitted in a glamourous array of fur paired with a sleek black leather jumpsuit. The day ensemble (though I don't know who would have the guts to wear this look during the daytme, save Cat Woman or maybe Trinity from The Matrix) stands arranged with a series of other womens and menswear looks on a platform resembling a runway.

"Maybe I would do different hair..." Joy trailed off as she led me to her favorite look from the exhibition. Her statement wasn't in criticism or disappointment -- it was pensive -- a sign of her striving for perfection in her work, and it is both endearing and motivational.

Jean Louis Scherrer's Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2000-01Jean Louis Scherrer's Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2000-01.

The daring outfit she deemed her favorite, from Jean Louis Scherrer's Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2000-2001 collection appeared in the 2000 Ebony Fashion Fair show entitled Fashion Sensation. 

Sensation, indeed. Joy described her favorite look as "outrageous" and "audacious fur." "You have to be super confident to wear this," she says.

Confidence is key in the message that the Ebony Fashion Fair's 50 years conveyed. Joy described how the message she hopes visitors take away from Inspiring Beauty mirrored the same one Johnson Publishing Company promoted.  

"They are more than pretty things," Joy described the innovative and flamboyant pieces. They "helped deliver the message of Johnson Publishing Company" and brought high-end fashion "within people's reach." Not to mention, the Ebony Fashion Fair was revolutionary in making African American women the standard of beauty. It was a vehicle of achievement and empowerment for these women.

Bill Blass, Valentino, and Bob Mackie eveningwear From left to right: Bill Blass, Valentino, and Bob Mackie eveningwear.  

Inspiring Beauty is a story of vision, innovation and power told through the history of Eunice Johnson, Chicago's Johnson Publishing Company, and the prism of iconic fashion from the late 20th to 21st centuries. See it now at the Chicago History Museum.

Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair is open through January 5, 2014. 

> Learn more about the exhibition

Help us keep the lights on by subscribing to Chicago Like a Local. For your efforts, we'll deliver awesome stories (like this one) to your inbox. Do we have a deal?