So what do Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald and the Playboy Bunny have in common? The answer: Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905-2011), the most influential fashion and costume designer that you’ve probably never heard of.
Valdes’ determination and talent in design was evident even in her youth, as after learning how to sew by making outfits for her dolls and observing her grandmother’s favourite seamstress at work, she offered to make her Grandmother a bespoke dress. “She said, ‘Daughter, you can’t sew for me,'” Valdes quoted in an interview with The New York Times. “’I’m too tall and too big.'” However, Valdes promptly proved her wrong. “She was so happy with that dress,” Valdes continued, “She was buried in it.”
After working for her uncle as a tailor, Valdes managed to obtain a position in an upmarket clothier, initially working as a stock girl before moving up the ranks selling and altering clothes. Despite facing continuous racism from customers who would frequently underestimate her skill, Valdes’ talent was recognised. In 1948 she became the first black designer to open her own shop, Chez Zelda, on Broadway, where she had a loyal clientele that included famous entertainers and leading figures of the black community. Valdes’ success only grew, and in 1949 she became the president of the New York branch of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD).
Valdes’ ingenuity emerged in the fluid intermixture of styles in her designs. Unlike other boutiques of the time that focused primarily on ‘costumes’ or ‘fashion’, Valdes seamlessly combined the two to create effortlessly glamorous pieces. Her designs are most famous for accentuating the hourglass of the female silhouette; an emphasis that helped glamourise the likes of Joyce Bryant, Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandrige, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mae West.
Dorothy Dandridge wearing Valdes, courtesy of Ed Clark/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Valdes’ hip-hugging creations subsequently struck a chord with Playboy Hugh Hefner, who commissioned her to design the very first outfits for the Playboy Bunnies. Thus, the Playboy bunny as we know it was born. The skin-tight leotard with its snatched waist, bow tie, and bunny ears has become immortalised as an enduring symbol of seduction and allure.
The playboy bunny design!
From launching Joyce Bryant’s sexy aesthetic as we know it, to creating the iconic Playboy Bunny, Valdes’ impact on both fashion and pop culture has been nothing short of legendary. Or rather, in her own modest words: “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful”.
Joyce Bryant wearing Valdes, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1953
Valdes fitting Eartha Kitt
Valdes fitting Dorothy Dandridge, from a 1954 issue of Hue Magazine
Mae West wearing one of Valdes’ designs