Dmae Roberts examines the Black contributions. fashion designAmerican history is filled with writers, publishers, and other creatives. fashion expert Rhonda P. Hill.
Hill is an American fashionIndustry analyst, curator/founder of EDGE Fashion Intelligence and publishing editor at EDGExpo.com. EDGE is an acronym for Emerging Designers get Exposed. It is an international platform that promotes the field of fashionIn artistic values, cultural significance, sustainability, and through the exposure to emerging designers
Rhonda Hill is a fashion historian and fashion curator.
Hill uses an anthropological lens in order to examine how Hill sees it. “the power of fashion has the unique ability to transform identity and culture.” Hill champions the idea of making the art of contemporary fashionYou can make it more accessible by exposing designExcellence through the public gallery or museum. As a curator, Hill’s project, Blurred Boundaries: Fashion as an Art, exhibited at GraySpace Gallery, Santa Barbara, California, was viewed as a museum-quality exhibit showcasing fashionAs an art, on par or equal to any other visual art.
In this podcast, we’ll hear about her varied career path and what it was like for a Black woman working in the industry from the 1970s through the 1990s. And we’ll get a history tour through her impressive pictorial and well-researched series of articles A Study of Eight, The Untold American Story.
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Her recently published a series of eight articles called A Study of Eight, The Untold American Story shows how historically Black fashionInfluencers and makers made use of the power fashionTheir culture and identity were transformed from the 1880s through 1980s. Hill said it shows how they are changing their identity and culture from the 1880s through the 1980s. “fought to be included, respected, and recognized in society.” A Study of Eight was also showcased on NPR’s Here & Now program.
Hill’s long career as an American fashion industry analyst started in the late 1970s. She was a pursuer of a fashion career when she was one of the few Black women in the industry. She began her professional career as a contemporary. fashion buyer at Macy’s in San Francisco. She was awarded and recognized for her leadership skills in fashionWarner Bros. has held executive positions in merchandising and merchandising. Studio Stores, Agron, Inc., a licensee of Adidas, Levi Strauss & Co., Vice President for Disney Direct Marketing, Disney Consumer Products division, The Walt Disney Company. Hill was the first African-American Vice President at Disney Consumer Products in 1998. This achievement was celebrated by Disney in the July 1999 Black Enterprise magazine. She is passionate about the future of the industry and her passion for it continues today. fashionHill actively promotes emerging industries via the EDGE platform. She says it takes an intelligent approach in countering the frivolous and unnecessary reputation of the industry with engagement and educational tools that address more substantive issues. Hill actively supports emerging industries. fashionDesigners of color and increases their visibility in the fashion world.
Hill spoke with Dmae Lo Roberts about her eight-part series, A Study of Eight: The Untold American Story. Hill says she’d always wanted to highlight the Black contributions to fashionBlack History Month: History She was inspired by the pandemic and the fight to achieve social justice.
“What really moved me along was what we all witnessed last year … the injustices that were done to the marginalized communities and what happened to George Floyd. So I just felt like this was the time. I had the time and this was the time to do it. I always wanted to elevate those voices, those hidden voices that we really didn’t know about, especially when it comes to black fashion makers who really did make a contribution to fashion.”
Hill starts the eight-part series by focusing on the construction of the cotton industry thanks to Black labor and the importance the first Black-owned cotton plant. She focuses the second piece on W.E.B Du Bois’ photojournalistic exhibition at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris that changed the perception of Black America.
Du Bois “wanted to mitigate the image that around the world Black Americans were ex-slaves…sharecroppers….working in disadvantaged areas,”Hill said. “What he wanted to do was show that we were lawyers and doctors and school teachers and business people, and that we were a middle-class that was upwardly mobile. And the way he did this was, he had these beautiful portraits of African-Americans dressed beautifully, hair, makeup, hats, jewelry. And he wanted everyone to understand that we, too, can acquire fine art. We, too, can have nice homes we took, and have fine jewelry.”
Four African American women sitting on the steps of Atlanta University’s building, Georgia. This image is part W.E.B. Du Bois’ award-winning “Exhibit of American Negroes.”(Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Hill also focuses on the first Black designers in the U.S., beginning in the mid-19th century: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, best-known as Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidant; Fannie Criss Payne, who was known as the premiere dressmaker of Richmond, Virginia; Anne Cole Lewis, designer of Jackie Kennedy’s iconic wedding dress; and Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes, the first Black woman to open her own designShop, 1948.
Dress worn by Mary Lincoln. Dress worn by First Lady Mary Lincoln during the Washington winter social season in 1861–62. (National Museum of American History).
“Their market was really targeted to those that really could pay the bills,”She says. “I mean, white women who wanted to have a dressmaker, and many of them, when you look back at what they did, a lot of the fashion press, they speak highly of these women and the quality of what they make. And back then they were defined as dressmakers and seamstresses. Today, they would be defined as designers.”
Designed by Anne Cole Lowe. Photo of Jacqueline Kennedy wearing her wedding dress in the December 1966 issue Ebony Magazine.| Photo of Jacqueline Kennedy in her wedding gown in the December 1966 issue of Ebony Magazine.
Hill also focused on the little-known history of Mildred Blount, the first Black member of the Motion Picture Costumers Union and the designer of the hats worn by the character Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Blount also had many well-known clients, such as Marian Anderson or Gloria Vanderbilt.
“In 1939, (Blount) had a beautiful body of work of these miniature hats and she presented them at the World’s Fair at the time. And the story goes that David Selznick’s wife was at the World’s Fair and saw her hats and the hats really depicted the film Gone with the Wind. So she, somehow she told her husband and he got in touch with John Fredericks. And the history is that Mildred did make those hats. She made most of the hats that Scarlet O’Hara wore. However, she did not get credit for them.”
“What’s New In Spring Hats”Mildred Blount, Ebony Magazine, April 1946 Cover.
Hill also writes about the importance of representation with the groundbreaking first Black supermodels such as Naomi Ruth Sims and Donyale Luna during the civil right era of 1960s-70s.
“In 1963, you had the assassination of Kennedy. You also had the assassination of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist. In 1964, you have the passing of the Civil Rights Act. In 1965, that’s when Donyale Luna graced Harper’s Bazaar. Now that was an illustration, not actual photo of her, but still that was her. And then in 1966, she was on the cover of British Vogue and her actual photo. But what’s interesting about that when you look at it and she’s got her hand over her, her, her nose and mouth and eyes. So here again, it’s like the industry was saying, yes, you know, we want to have Black on the cover, but let’s kind of make it a little bit subtle.”
Donyale Lunda, March 1966 cover of British Vogue
Hill also features Ebony Fashion Fairs, which traveled to 30 cities each calendar year over the 51-year lifespan of Ebony magazine. These fairs featured models from Black and plus-size models. Hill wraps up A Study of Eight, The Untold American Story in the penultimate piece with the stories of Battle of Versailles Fashion showIn 1973, top American and French designers added musical elements to the runway with music and movement. show. The most important aspect of Black American history is the fact that, while showOnly one Black was included designerOut of 36 models, 10 were Black.
From the documentary: “Battle At Versailles: The Competition that Shook the Fashion Industry” | M2M by Fritz Mitchell.
Hill concludes the eight-part study with a focus upon designerWilli Smith of WilliWear during the 1980s. Smith was one of the most successful designers of that era. He also collaborated on projects in dance and film.
WilliWear Fall 1985 Presentation, 1985, Courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY, FIT Library Special Collections and College Archives, New York, NY, USA; © Peter Gould.