A true changemaker and visionary, African American designer, Zelda Wynn Valdes, paved the way for nonconformist fashion and was the go-to designer for celebrities and performers who weren’t afraid to turn heads. With her achievements previously overlooked, we’re celebrating her life, success and influence on women’s fashion history this Juneteenth holiday. Valdes’ incredible story of forging her own path and her journey to breaking glass ceilings for black female designers and luxury designer brands that follow in her footsteps is inspiring.
- 6 minute read.
Valdes’ Early Life and Influences
Valdes was born and raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in June 1905, and was also where her foray into the world of fashion began. Early influences in her design career were inspired by watching her grandmother who was a seamstress. Championing her belief and abilities, her grandmother encouraged her early creations, including a dress she created for her. After graduating high school in the 1920s, Valdes moved to White Plains, NY and began working at her uncle’s tailoring shop. This opened her eyes to the New York fashion scene. In the years that followed, she worked as a stock girl in an upscale boutique and then as a sales clerk and tailor, the first black woman to do so.
Success and Celebrity Clientele
Joyce Bryant wearing a Zelda Wynn Valdes designed dress.
Ready to begin making her mark in the industry, Valdes opened her own boutique named Chez Zelda on Broadway in Manhattan, again the first black person to do so. During her time in the boutique, she began to develop her now noteworthy style of signature low-cut and figure-hugging gowns that celebrated women’s curves. Cementing herself as a luxury designer brand, Valdes’ creations were made from the finest materials including silk organza, crepe, satin, and Italian knit jersey. Her magic created garments that were incredibly feminine, elegant, and often featured intricate details. She created everything from cocktail dresses to bridal gowns and grew to have a team of nine dressmakers.
Valdes quickly began to be noticed for her artistic eye and sexy, yet sophisticated, dresses that were featured in her fashion shows by celebrities and prominent women in society. Valdes dressed women including Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Maria Ellington, Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt and Diahann Carroll. After designing Maria Ellington’s gown for her wedding to Nat King Cole, Valdes’ business and profile boomed.
Easter Sunday, March 28, 1948 Wedding Photo of Nat King Cole and Maria Ellington at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem neighborhood of New York City.
Valdes- Infamous Playboy Bunny Suit
A young Hugh Hefner with an early cast of Playboy Bunnies.
Along with her bold and sensual designs, Valdes also played a large role in embracing sexuality through fashion. In the 1960s, she was commissioned by Hugh Hefner of Playboy to create an outfit for his waitresses. Valdes created the infamous Playboy bunny suit, featuring a tight fitting and revealing strapless corset with matching bunny ears, pantyhose, a bow tie, collar, cuffs, and a fluffy tail to complete the look. Pioneering the nonconformist fashion look, today its iconic in culture as a symbol of feminine seduction.
Valdes’ Legacy and Women’s Fashion History
Valdes’ legacy on women’s fashion history was powerful. She rose to fame as a designer in an era that was mostly popularized by Parisian fashion. Valdes’ designs embraced women’s curvy silhouettes and celebrated individuality as well as diversity. She dressed women of all shapes and sizes and made everyone love their bodies. She was a master at creating and had the ability to design and produce dresses that fit like a glove by simply studying women’s body shapes. This helped her career as she tended to dress celebrities and performers who weren’t always available for fittings.
As well as designing for her private clientele under her luxury designer brand, Valdes also created costumes for the likes of classical singer Marian Anderson’s concert recitals and for the Dance Theatre of Harlem for which she designed costumes for over 80 productions towards the end of her career. A noteworthy legacy that’s impact is incredibly important was her pioneering of dying traditionally pink ballet tights to match the skin tone of each dancer.
Dorothy Dandridge performing in a Zelda Wynna Valdes designed dress
Lasting Impact On The Fashion World
Valdes’ most important legacy was how she paved the way for current and future black female designers to be recognised for their artistic abilities and contributions to the fashion industry. She led the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers which was founded with the goal of promoting black fashion designers and costume designers. She also taught fashion design to budding designers in Harlem and donated fabrics for student workshops. She closed her store for good in 1989, but continued to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, until her passing in 2001.