Zelda Wynnes, the first black tailor and boutique owner in Manhattan, was instrumental in helping to create old school Hollywood glamour. She was instrumental in producing the Playboy bunny costume in the 1960s at Hugh Hefner’s commission. In changing the New York Ballet’s pink tight brigade to tights that matched skin hue, she set the way for celebrating diversity. She designed and made dresses to fit the woman, whatever her size and shape. And in her own words, she said ‘I just had a God-given talent for making people feel beautiful’. However, she didn’t make fashion history design books. Just how many Zelda Wynns are out there?
Zelda Wynn Valdes was born in 1905 and raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. She learned to sew while watching her grandmother’s dressmaker. She offered to create a dress for her grandmother, and it fit her perfectly.
In 1923, her family moved to White Plains, New York, and Zelda worked in her uncle’s tailoring shop. She worked as a stock girl in a high end boutique in the 1930s and eventually became the first black sales clerk and tailor. In 1948, she opened her own boutique, called ‘Chez Zelda’ making her the first black person to own a store on Broadway in Manhattan. She was 47 years old, and her sister, Mary Barbour, worked as her assistant.
Zelda was already breaking norms for her era, but she would soon break the glass ceiling. She was elected president of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD), an organization of black designers that was founded by political activist Mary McLeod Bethune who experienced discrimination.
Zelda’s signature look was low-cut, body-hugging gowns which emphasised a woman’s curves. They were bought and loved by Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandrige, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West.
Zelda helped Joyce Bryant define her signature look by suggesting that if she coupled her talent with a sensuality she would go far. She was right. The dresses were so tight Bryant couldn’t sit down while wearing them but it was a small price to pay for the results. She was given nicknames like ‘black Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘bronze blond bombshell’.
Zelda became known for her ability to make women of all sizes and shapes transform into goddesses. Ella Fitzgerald only had time for one fitting but ordered constantly from Zelda. Zelda only measured her once in twelve years and studied pictures to estimate her expanding size. Ella always ordered three or more dresses at a time, with only three days make time. Zelda never let her down. She was a designer that women went to if they wanted to use an outfit to slay.
In 1958 Hugh Hefner himself approved her Playboy bunny costume which became synonymous with old school seduction. Originally, her design lacked the trademark bow tie, collar and cuffs, and the ears were taller. It debuted at the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago, Illinois, February 29, 1960. Perhaps this is her most iconic creation, going onto be used constantly as a siren for an approaching bombshell. Who will forget the Playboy bunny scene in “Bridget Jones’ Diary”?
Zelda also managed to traverse the world of fashion and costume design, making costumes for the New York Ballet at age 65, and eventually designing costumes for over 80 productions. She created tights dyed to match the skin tone of the dancers, celebrating diversity rather than the standard pink tights for all skin tones. Zelda continued to do work for the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death on September 26, 2001, at the age of ninety-six.
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