Socialite Mollie Moon Used Fashion Shows to Fund the Civil Rights Movement

tags: civil rights, African American history, fashion, political activism

Tanisha C. Ford is an award-winning writer and history professor. Her work centers on social movements, youth culture, fashion, and urban history. She is the author of Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl's Love Letter to the Power of Fashion.

The glamorous Mollie Moon sauntered around the Grand Ballroom at Manhattan’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel as she made minor adjustments to the decor. It was October 4, 1959. Moon, the founder and president of the Urban League Guild, was preparing to bring the Ebony Fashion Fair to New York for its Big Apple premiere. A pharmacist by training and a veteran fundraiser, Moon paid meticulous attention to every detail of the events she hosted, because she believed guests could feel her level of care. The Waldorf, with its Art Deco luxury, had hosted European monarchs, diplomats, and New York’s white upper crust. Why should the Black American guests Moon was hosting on this evening expect anything less than the royal treatment?

Moon, wife of the former NAACP public relations director, Henry Lee Moon, understood that Black Americans were generous givers who loved to dress up for a good cause. Give them an opportunity to show out and the money would show up! Ticket prices for the fair ranged from $3.50 to $12 (roughly $25 to $100 today) and came with a subscription to either Ebony or Jet magazine. Proceeds from the NYC show would go to the National Urban League, the interracial civil rights organization Moon’s guild supported through savvy fundraising campaigns and volunteer work. In cities from Washington, D.C., to Peoria, Illinois, powerbrokers like Moon hosted Ebony Fashion Fair events to fund local nonprofit organizations, racial justice causes, and HBCU scholarships.

The idea for the Fashion Fair originated in New Orleans in 1956. Jessie Covington Dent, an accomplished pianist, a socialite, and the wife of Dillard University president Albert W. Dent, reached out to media mogul John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing about cohosting a fashion show fundraiser for Flint-Goodridge Hospital. That first show was such a success that Johnson and his wife, the fashionable and cosmopolitan Eunice Johnson, decided they should make it an annual touring fundraiser. Ripping “Fashion Fair” straight from Ebony magazine’s monthly column of the same name, Ebony Fashion Fair took shape under the leadership of Johnson Publishing’s home services director, Freda DeKnight. The rebranded traveling fashion extravaganza launched in 1958 with the theme Ebony Fashion Fair Around the Clock, featuring the wares of American and European designers, a few models, lively music, elaborate stage props, and colorful commentary by DeKnight.

Ebony Fashion Fair was the perfect fundraiser. “It was ready-made,” Joy Bivins, curator of “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” explains. “For the organizations, they don’t really have to do anything but bring the show. It’s a package deal.” And for the attendees, the shows created an opportunity to “get together and do what rich people do with each other: show off! But it had this philanthropic aspect to it that, in many ways, made it okay,” Bivins says. The shows also gave exposure and brought new clientele to Black ready-to-wear designers and milliners who were struggling to launch their careers due to Jim Crow racism and cronyism in the mainstream fashion world.

Read entire article at Harper's Bazaar

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