Zelda Wynn Valdes was a pioneering African-American fashion designer, whose glittering 40-year career saw some of the biggest names in Hollywood dressed in her signature designs.
From sewing her first dress as a teenager to designing for the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, Valdes’ incredible journey can be summed up in her own words from a 1994 Times interview:
“I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful.”
Born in the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania as Zelda Christian Barbour, Valdes belonged to a middle-class family and was the eldest of seven children. In 1923 she graduated her local high school, with her yearbook photograph featuring the charming quote: “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance”.
Though never professionally trained in the skill, she began learning to sew from watching her grandmother and her grandmother’s seamstress at work. Valdes’ first complete piece was reportedly a dress for her grandmother, and so beloved was this garment that her grandmother was buried in it when she passed away.
Honing her skills
After she graduated high school, Zelda moved to White Plains, New York and began working at her uncle’s busy tailoring shop, growing her skills as a seamstress with a particular flair for women’s tailoring.
Around this time she also began working in a high-end boutique as a stock girl, later stating: “It wasn’t a pleasant time, but the idea was to see what I could do.”
Needless to say her technical skills impressed, and she worked her way up to selling clothes and making alterations, becoming the shop’s first black sales clerk and tailor.
A pioneering businesswoman
By 1935, she had her own dressmaking business in White Plains, overseeing ladies alterations and developing her own clientele, in particular advertising her services in publications aimed at the area’s black communities.
13 years later she moved to New York City and opened her own design and dressmaking studio called ‘Zelda Wynn’, which became the first black-owned business to appear on Broadway in Manhattan.
Quickly finding success in New York, in the 1950s she moved her glamorously renamed shop – ‘Chez Zelda’ – to 151 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan. Alongside her team of nine dressmakers, she would dress some of the biggest stars in Hollywood with her show-stopping designs, charging almost $1,000 per couture gown (around $12,000 in 2022).
Over the course of her career, Valdes grew a star-studded customer base of largely African-American women from the world of show business, including the incredible Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt and Ella Fitzgerald.
Of Fitzgerald, Zelda later told Times: “I was able to measure her once, but thereafter she was so busy that she didn’t have the time. She would order – always in a rush – and I would study photos of her and guess her increasing size… I never had more than three to four days to finish the gowns. I am pleased to say that I never missed a delivery.”
In 1948, Valdes dressed the entire bridal party of one of the most notable cultural events of its day: the wedding of Marie Ellington to Nat King Cole. Taking place in Harlem, the opulent wedding was covered heavily by the press, with Maria’s stunning blue satin gown a standout feature.
Another of Valdes’ memorable contributions to fashion was her styling of the singer Joyce Bryant, dressing her in a host of figure-hugging outfits with the suggestion that a sexier image might help jumpstart her career. Her new look was a hit, and Bryant was later given a spread in LIFE Magazine and dubbed ‘The Bronze Blond Bombshell’.
Dressing the Playboy Bunnies
A master designer in celebrating the female shape, Valdes’ work then caught the eye of none other than Hugh Hefner, who was in process of opening his brand new Playboy Club in New York in the 1960s.
Hefner is traditionally thought to have commissioned Valdes to design the very first Playboy Bunny costumes, and though it is not clear if she was the sole creator of the costumes, the sleek, sexy silhouettes featured are reminiscent of her signature look.
Having an ongoing relationship with the Playboy Club in New York, Valdes would also hold sophisticated fashion shows to their integrated audiences, billed as ‘Zelda at the Playboy’. With this in mind, it would seem logical that she had a hand in the formfitting costumes of the Bunnies who worked there, as fashion historian Nancy Deihl hypothesises.
Throughout her life, Valdes had been committed to a number of different causes, from taking part in charity fashion shows, to teaching young people to sew, to founding organisations that aimed to promote black talent in the fashion world.
One of these was the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers (NAFAD), a group intended to build networks for black professionals who had been largely blocked from gaining opportunities in the fashion industry, something Valdes herself had experiences of in her career.
In 1970, American ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell asked Valdes to design costumes for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and over the next 20 years she would work on the costumes for 82 productions there.
Deviating away from standard pale pink ballet costumes, Valdes promoted dyeing the performers’ tights and shoes to match their varied skin tones. This iconic move helped to establish the aesthetics of the theatre and break the traditionally accepted look of ‘the ballerina’, whose pink costumes were meant to mimic the skin of white dancers.
By 1989 she had closed her design business, yet continued to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death in 2001 at the age of 97.
From glittering cabaret gowns to pioneering ballet costumes, Valdes’ legacy within the fashion world and the black creative community is truly an impressive one.