By Lenore Skenazy
“Who are you wearing?”
That’s 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 Valdez?
Neither had I. But then 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, Staten Island’s own Kiviette. In her day, she went by that one name, like Beyoncé or Madonna. Born Yeda Kiviette in 1893, her 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 clothes for “real life.”
Over the years, her costumes were featured in 88 productions, including “Vanity Fair,” a 1919 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 in the ad she took out.
It worked. In fact, over time she became such a trendsetter that society women would go to plays featuring Kiviette costumes just to see what was chic and new. Then they’d tell their dressmakers: “Copy that!”
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, feathers, and frippery, no matter what the play was about. It was Kiveitte who declared that “costumes must adhere to the time, place, and character of the play.” Enough with the feathers!
Besides, there were other, newer ways to get attention. Kiviette scandalized society by outfitting the chorus girls in a comedy about a country club in shorts. Shorts! Until then, shorts were considered proper only for tennis or the beach. Kiviette made them a “look.” Be grateful!
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 A-list celebrities including Josephine Baker, Mae West, Eartha Kitt, Ruby Dee, Gladys Knight, and Aretha Franklin.
Of course, no one starts out famous. Wynn was born in 1905 and grew up in small town in Pennsylvania. Her first job was in her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains. By the age of 30 she had her own dress shop there, advertising in The Amsterdam News 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 — 158th and Broadway. The neighborhood was bustling and so was her business, employing nine skilled seamstresses. It was that same year that Nat King Cole was getting 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, including seven bridesmaids in ice-blue satin gowns so spectacular that even The New York Times, which rarely wrote about anything “uptown” back then, took note. As for The Amsterdam News, it reveled in the sheer gorgeousness of the event, noting that, “It made you feel very proud indeed, because it isn’t often that the folks downtown get the opportunity to see Harlemites in a smart, social light.”
One of Wynn’s earliest celebrity clients was Ella Fitzgerald. While Ella became a loyal customer, she did not come in for fittings, so, Wynn later told a reporter, “I’d just look at the papers and say, ‘Gee, she’s gotten larger,’” and 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 the 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-America 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 firebrands in this book.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”