In this interview with Professor Nancy Deihl, Master Teacher of Costume Studies at New York University, we look back in history to discuss and discover the life and accomplishments of Zelda Wynn Valdes, celebrity dressmaker and designer of the original Playboy bunny costume.
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Who was Zelda Wynn Valdes?
Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905-2001) was an African American fashion and costume designer whose career spanned 40 years. Working in and around New York City, the center of the American fashion industry, Valdes began her career as an assistant to her uncle in his White Plains, New York tailoring shop. In 1948, she opened her own shop on upper Broadway, and in the 1950s she moved her business to West 57th Street where, she had a boutique known as Chez Zelda. In the last chapter of her long career, she was the costumer for the Dance Theater of Harlem.
What set Valdes’s work apart from other designers of her time? What influence did she have on popular fashion of the 1940s and 1950s?
The gauge of Valdes’s importance isn’t her influence on other designers; a better measure of her success would be the loyalty she enjoyed from her clients and the value they placed on her personal attention to their individual personalities and needs. The niche she occupied was quite particular: exquisitely finished special occasion dressing. She created wedding gowns, evening and cocktail dresses, and other luxurious ensembles. She dressed the entire bridal party at the 1948 wedding of Marie Ellington and Nat “King” Cole, an event that brought together the upper stratum of black society in New York, taking place at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem which was officiated by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Who were some of her clientele?
Valdes had an established clientele especially among notable female entertainers and other prominent women within the black community. She counted among her entertainment-world clients Josephine Baker, Mae West, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, and Marian Anderson. She also dressed the wives of famous black celebrities, including Nat “King” Cole and Sugar Ray Robinson. Unlike some other designers who exclusively created “costumes” versus “fashion”, Valdes moved between the two modes and her clients appreciated that as they ordered clothes for performance and also for their private wardrobes.
Every designer has that one design or outfit they are known for (like DVF and the wrap dress), is there an outfit that Zelda Wynn Valdes is most known for?
Valdes is perhaps best known as the designer of the original Playboy Bunny costume. While it’s not clear (and I’m currently researching this) that she was the sole creator of the costume, Valdes had an ongoing relationship with the Playboy Club in New York where she staged fashion shows so it makes sense that she was involved in the design. In addition, the snug satin Bunny outfit with its eye-catching décolletage is a reflection of her glamorous aesthetic.
Why is Zelda Wynn Valdes’ story not only important to Black and Women’s History but Fashion History?
Zelda Wynn Valdes was one of the founders of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, an industry group intended to promote black design professionals in a time when the fashion industry reflected the segregation of American society. It’s important that we not let the fact that Zelda Wynn Valdes was working within a segregated business environment restrict knowledge of her achievements. She dressed some of the most famous women in the world, for their private lives and for major performances, and her talent deserves an equally large stage.
Fashion is an aspect of culture — whether we think about it in financial or aesthetic terms — that affects most citizens in developed economies. That a fashion designer with such a long career and such renowned clients is virtually unknown today indicates that the prevailing narrative of American fashion is incomplete.
Heading image: Zelda Wynn Valdes. Courtesy of Dance Theater of Harlem. Used with permission.