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Since it's founded in 1945, the Johnson Publishing Company and its flagship publication, Ebony magazine, has helped to fashion the ideals and dreams of America's black middle class. In 1958, Ebony created the Fashion Fair, a traveling haute couture show that's traversed the country and raised tens of millions of dollars for causes like sickle cell anemia research and the United Negro College Fund. Though it ended in 2009, the Ebony Fashion Fair changed the lives of those on both sides of the catwalk. And as NPR's Jacki Lyden reports, it changed America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, LE FREAK")

CHIC: (Singing) Aw, freak out, l'freak, says Chic...

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: Growing up in gritty Compton, California, Paula Bond used to wonder can anything good ever come out of here? Well, she did. Ebony put her on its cover, and then in the Fashion Fair. Hello, America.

PAULA BOND: Here I am on the runway, wearing these gowns that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, this little black girl. In my mind, the gowns that I wore on that runway cost more than a used car my mom was ever able to afford when we were growing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, LE FREAK")

CHIC: (Singing) Find a spot, out on the floor. Aw, freak out...

LYDEN: Faye Moseley was a six-foot track star from Jackson, Mississippi, and a 23-year-old single mom of a five-year-old. She was in the Fashion Fair in 1983. She had the legs, and they loved her on the runway.

FAYE MOSELEY: I tended to wear things that were see-through and that were short. You wore your most over-the-top fashion garment because you could, and then when the show started you were mesmerized. You never left your seat because you were afraid that you would miss a one-of-a-kind garment, an outfit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: The Ebony Fashion Fair started in 1958 in the grand ballroom of Chicago's Conrad Hilton Hotel. Then it hit the road - from splashy big city venues to high school gyms in tiny whistle stops. The young models traveled by bus - with seats removed for their long legs - all over the country and throughout the Jim Crow South.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTING)

LYDEN: In the early '60s, the Fashion Fair was in Jackson, Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)

LYDEN: Racial tensions were boiling over. A young woman from Vicksburg named Del Handy was with them.

DEL HANDY: It almost felt like steam coming up from the pavement. You could just feel it. And our name was on our bus at one time and, you know, Ebony Fashion Fair. And I remember them taking the name off the bus so as not to call attention.

LYDEN: But they were making history. The models were invited to the White House in 1961, and young Del Handy met the president, John F. Kennedy. She remembers an elegant dinner in the White House with strawberry shortcake, a little different from how they dine on the road. Restaurants were off-limits. John Johnson, Ebony's publisher, knew the models were aspirational figures, and he wanted them seen that way.

HANDY: Mr. Johnson had said that when we went down south that we could never go in the back door of the restaurant.

LYDEN: Instead, the white bus driver would go get takeout.

HANDY: So, we ate on the bus, I would say all the way from maybe even Maryland, but all the way down through the South and up maybe as far as St. Louis, and we didn't sit down to eat until we got to either Lincoln or Omaha, Nebraska.

LYDEN: John and his wife Eunice Johnson were visionaries. They met and married in Chicago, where he worked in insurance and she earned a master's degree in social work. By 1945, they'd also created Ebony and later Jet. Eunice Johnson, who was from a socially prominent family in Selma, loved fashion and style, and she used it for black self-empowerment.

LINDA JOHNSON RICE: Her real driving force was really education.

LYDEN: Linda Johnson Rice is Eunice's daughter and Johnson Publishing's CEO today.

RICE: She just wanted to prove there was nothing you couldn't do, there was no barrier to black beauty. She would put the brightest yellow, brightest orange on the most dark-skinned model that she had.

LYDEN: In his memoir, John Johnson writes that at first, Eunice Johnson had to beg, persuade and threaten to buy clothes from European designers reluctant to sell high fashion to a black woman. But attitudes changed quickly, says Linda.

RICE: She opened those doors herself. I mean, you had to explain at Givenchy, you had to explain at Dior, you had to explain at Valentino - every single place you go. It wasn't as if they weren't welcoming, they were, well, I think sort of shocked. I mean, who is this woman coming here, this well-dressed black woman, and she's coming with a checkbook.

LYDEN: Eunice Johnson wrote checks for $50,000 at a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT TO GIVE IT UP")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) I used to go out and party...

LYDEN: Certainly, Eunice Johnson was a top American purchaser of couture. But the financial outlay of the show was tremendous. Johnson Publishing announced in 2009 that it would have to cancel the show's fall season. A few months later, Eunice Johnson passed away at age 93.

JOY BIVENS, CURATOR, CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM: All right. So, we're going to go and look at...

LYDEN: Last year, the Chicago History Museum went through racks and racks of Eunice Johnson's clothing for a huge exhibit. It's called "Inspiring Beauty: Fifty Years of Ebony Fashion Fair".

JOY BIVENS: I love this. Isn't that cool?

LYDEN: Honestly, the whole show is stunning. Curator Joy Bivens helped choose the outfits - day wear, evening wear, cocktail outfits - and she grouped them by category: revealing, bold, sassy. This patchwork leather ensemble is fantastic. Sort of like a mosaic.

BIVENS: One of my favorite gowns in the whole show is this - I call it the rainbow gown. It's a really unique combination of colors, kind of a...

LYDEN: The rainbow gown was created by New York designer B Michael. Eunice Johnson promoted young black designers: Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Willi Smith, L'Amour, and many more. B Michael was designing hats for the TV show "Dynasty." Then Eunice Johnson called. It changed his life. She wanted to photograph one of his hats for Ebony. He still remembers the hat.

B MICHAEL: It was a white sisal, which is like a linen texture, straw hat. And I think what she liked about it is it really looked like a flying saucer. I took the brim and reversed it, so the brim went up as opposed to down. And I collared it with rhinestones and pearls. I remember it very well.

LYDEN: Today, B Michael is a national brand with a ready-to-wear line at Macy's and couture purchased by the stars, like Cate Blanchett, Nancy Wilson and Beyonce.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Get ready to be entertained and fashionably inspired as we present to you Ebony Fashion Fair's fit to be fabulous.

LYDEN: For the black middle class, and the African-American sororities and charities, this was the event of the year. In Washington, D.C., Tonya Talley-Smith and her mother and sister dressed to the nines and went every year, either to the Kennedy Center or a nearby country club, a tradition that started for them in 1968.

TONYA TALLEY-SMITH: We had grown to a place where we had not been before, and not only that, we were beginning to go into stores that we couldn't go into. And the style of the hair was beginning to change, even down to the color of your hosiery because back when I came along to get a pair of hose to match your skin, we had to dye them.

LYDEN: Never have would occurred to me, frankly, that you couldn't even get stockings in your own skin hue.

TALLEY-SMITH: No, you could not. I learned that from my mother very early because they were too light. And so you learned to dip them in coffee.

LYDEN: The Johnsons may have been the first to bring haute couture to the black middle class, but Maxine Craig, who teaches gender studies at the UC Davis, points out that the tradition of the black beauty pageant dates back to at least the late 19th century.

MAXINE CRAIG: Well, Ringwood's Afro-American Journal of Fashion is one of the earliest black women's magazines, and we're going back to 1890s here.

LYDEN: Maxine Craig says that Ebony and the Fashion Fair were all about racial aspirations.

CRAIG: So, Ebony would say something like this season we will need cashmere sweaters because they're essential when you go on a cruise. Now, most of the readership, if they were in the South, couldn't sit in the front of a bus, much less go on a cruise. At that time, the airlines refused to hire black stewardesses. And then you've got Ebony showing models carrying Pan Am flight bags. So, they're letting black readers visualize where they will go. High fashion may be distant, but style is accessible. And it's your right to have it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All the way from Milan, Italy comes this fabulous powder blue cape...

LYDEN: Those rights became part of American life. So did the Fashion Fair. Ever more over-the-top with names like Fashion Scandal, Fashion Seduction, Fashion Sizzle. Former models Paula Bond and Faye Moseley.

BOND: When Mrs. Johnson started the show, we were colored. We then evolved into Negroes. That was followed by we were black. Remember? Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSELEY: Right, right.

BOND: And then into being called African-Americans.

LYDEN: Both models went on to the Paris runways. Today, Faye works for a Fortune 500 firm and Paula has her own Beverly Hills production company. Last summer, in Anaheim, they brought together 300 former Fashion Fair models for their first-ever reunion. Paula's making a documentary about the models, who she compares to the Tuskegee Airmen or the Negro Baseball League. And then there's just the fun of reliving it all.

BOND: I mean culturally, listen, you know who African-Americans are. We have a certain energy, we like to do things with a certain flair. Like if I had my coat over my shoulders - not on but over my shoulders - I could twirl so that the coat would come off of my shoulder, and before that coat hit the ground, I caught it on the tip of my index finger.

LYDEN: One disappointment: Paula Bond and Faye Mosely say they would have thought there'd be a lot more black models on magazine covers by now. Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair is up at the Chicago History Museum into May and then tours nationally, prompting sponsors to hope the Ebony Fashion Fair itself might roll again, maybe with a few big stars - Oprah, Janelle Monae, Beyonce. When you see them all dressed up with every place to go, they all owe something of a debt to those women on the bus who traveled the highways from New York City to Itta Bena, Mississippi and far beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ON TOP")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Honey, honey, I can see the stars all the way from here...

SIMON: That was NPR's Jacki Lyden. You can see some of the fashion photos on our website, npr.org. Let me tell you,- they look fabulous. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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