Zelda Wynn Valdes Dressed Divas, Dancers, and Bunnies
In 1948, buoyed by post war-prosperity and an affluent black clientele that included the wives of Nat King Cole and Sugar Ray Robinson, fashion designer Zelda Wynn Valdes opened an exclusive dress shop, Zelda Wynn, at Broadway and 158th Street in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. This move marked two important firsts in black history: Valdes’ salon was the first black-owned business on the famed boulevard, and she is credited with being the first black fashion designer.
Valdes would go on to make her mark not only in black history but also in pop culture. She helped create the iconic Playboy Bunny uniform in 1960, the outfit worn by waitresses at Playboy Clubs.
“DRESSMAKER vs. DESIGNER”
The path to Broadway – and later, fashionable midtown Manhattan, the Playboy Club, and the Dance Theater of Harlem – was not an obvious one. As a black female, Valdes had no role models in design. A distinction – often arbitrary – was made between “dressmaking” and “designing.”
As The New York Times noted in a belated obituary of Valdes in 2019 (part of the paper’s effort to honor black men and women who weren’t recognized at the time of their deaths) the title of “couturier” or designer was reserved almost exclusively for white men. For example, Ann Lowe, who designed the wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses for Jacqueline Bouvier’s 1953 wedding to then-Senator John F. Kennedy, was credited as a “seamstress” rather than a designer for decades.
Thought to be born in Cuba to a Cuban father and a black mother (accounts of her origins and the year of her birth vary), Valdes was raised in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Throughout her life, she identified with her mother’s African-American heritage. Trained as a classical pianist, Valdes exhibited a passion for fashion at an early age.
A YOUNG TALENT
By the time she was 13, she could expertly sew her own designs. One of her earliest creations was a gift for her skeptical grandmother, who questioned the girl’s ability to execute an outfit for an adult. The older woman treasured her granddaughter’s creation so greatly that she chose to be buried in it.
Valdes was aware of both her talent and the limitations society placed upon her, and she charted a carefully thought out career path. After finishing high school, in the early 1920s, Valdes (who was born in either 1901 or 1905) began working in her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York. Around the same time, she also took a job as a stock clerk at a high-end boutique.
Initially content to work behind the scenes, Valdes worked her way up to customer-facing roles as the shop’s first black sales clerk and tailor. Valdes said of the experience, “It wasn’t a pleasant time, but the idea was to see what I could do.” She was noted for her ability to dress women of any size and shape. She was often quoted as saying, “I have a God-given talent for making people beautiful.”
Others, too, would see what she could do – and they responded favorably to it. Valdes organized cause-related fashion shows, exposing her work to an affluent black audience. She became known for creating elegant, eye-catching clothes that showed off the female figure – a departure from the opulent, full-skirted designs popularized by Paris designer Christian Dior’s “New Look,” which debuted in 1947.
To go against the grain of Parisian influence was a bold step for a still-fledgling designer but proved to be a shrewd one. Customers who sought out her “mermaid” dresses included not only the elite among black entertainers in the ‘40s and ’50s – Dorothy Dandridge, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Joyce Bryant, Ruby Dee, and Josephine Baker – but also Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, whose stage personas were built around their allure as much as their talent. In the 1950s Valdes opened a new salon, Chez Zelda, in midtown Manhattan.
THE BUNNY HOP
Given Valdes’ propensity to dress women in clothes that worked with rather than against their curves, creating the Playboy Bunny uniform represented more of a hop than a leap. “Fitting curvaceous women was what Zelda did, so it was a perfect fit,” notes fashion historian and author Nancy Deihl, director of New York University’s MA Costume Studies program.
While there is a dispute over who actually designed the outfit – Valdes is sometimes credited for the design – there is no question that Valdes was responsible for sewing the first Bunny uniforms, ensuring that they were functional as well as flattering. The Playboy Bunny uniform’s distinctive look – which owes much to the construction executed by Valdes – is trademarked. The Bunny outfit was the first commercial uniform registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Her philanthropic endeavors included working with the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, with the goal of promoting black designers, and co-founding the Harlem Youth Orchestra.
LEAVING HER LEGACY
Further acclaim would come to Valdes through her work designing for the Dance Theater of Harlem, which she started doing in 1970 at the behest of founder Arthur Mitchell. She would continue with the dance troupe until her death in 2001.
Given her life-long work of creating designs that complemented the wearer’s body, it isn’t surprising that she did away with the pink ballet tights designed to be worn on white skin. It was also a subtle but effective strike against racism in the ballet world. “The tradition in ballet is everybody’s supposed to be the same hue, but they celebrated all the different colors of their dancers, which was part of a new aesthetic that championed for diversity,” says historian Deihl. Eventually the rest of the dance world caught up with the idea.
Today, dancers can find head-to-toe costumes in colors that match their own skin tone, part of the legacy left by Zelda Wynn Valdes.