Zelda Wynn Valdes

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Christian Barbour

(1901-06-28)June 28, 1901
DiedSeptember 26, 2001(2001-09-26) (aged 100)
LabelZelda Wynn

Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes (June 28, 1901 - September 26, 2001)[1] was an American fashion designer and costumer. She is credited for designing the original Playboy Bunny waitress costumes.[2]


Zelda Valdes was born Zelda Christian Barbour in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina.[1] She trained as a classical pianist at the Catholic Conservatory of Music.[3] In the early 1920s, Valdes started to work in the tailoring shop of her uncle in White Plains, New York. Around the same time, Valdes began working as a stock girl at a high-end boutique. Eventually, she worked her way up to selling and making alterations, becoming the shop's first black sales clerk and tailor. Looking back, Valdes said "It wasn't a pleasant time, but the idea was to see what I could do."[4][5] Despite the struggles she experienced in her early experiences in the alteration industry, Valdes and her sister, Chez Valdes, opened the first African American owned Manhattan boutique in 1948.[6]

Early life[edit]

Zelda Wynn Valdes was the eldest of seven children, who grew up in a small rural town called Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Both of her parents, James W. Barbour and Blanche M. Barbour, were working class citizens. Her father was a cook on the Pennsylvania railroad while her mother was a homemaker.[1]

In 1923, she graduated from Chambersburg High School in which she studied business while also attending a Catholic music school in Pennsylvania, where she learned to play the piano.[1] She also learned how to sew from her mother, grandmother, and her grandmother's dressmaker at the time. She would go onto utilize her sewing skills at her uncle's tailoring shop in White Plans, New York in 1923.[1]


Joyce Bryant wearing signature look from Zelda Valdes (Image by Carl Van Vechten)

Beginning in 1935, she had her own dressmaking business in White Plains, New York. She eventually oversaw ladies alterations, and developed her own dressmaking clientele.[1] In 1948, Valdes opened "Zelda Wynn," her design and dressmaking studio, on Broadway (in what is now Washington Heights on Broadway and West 158th Street).[7] Valdes said that her shop was the first black-owned business on Broadway.[1] She sold her dresses to movie star Dorothy Dandridge, opera diva Jessye Norman, and singer Gladys Knight. Valdes also dressed the entire bridal party for the 1948 wedding of Marie Ellington, aka Maria Cole and Nat King Cole.[5] Additional celebrity clients included Josephine Baker, Mae West, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, and Marian Anderson, Constance Bennet, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight.[8][5][4] Her designing relationship with Fitzgerald was mostly long-distance - she told The New York Times in 1994 that she only fitted Fitzgerald once in 12 years, and did most of her designing for her based on her imagination.[4] Valdes also created a new sexier image for singer Joyce Bryant who LIFE Magazine dubbed "the Black Marilyn Monroe."[9] Wynn's contribution to Bryant's rebranding was integral to the success of the singer's career. Whereas before Bryant was known to wear 'sweet' dresses to accompany her 'sweet' songs, Zelda's suggestion to dress Bryant in more formfitting gowns that complimented her curves, helped in establishing Bryant as a global talent.[10]

Her extensive clientele coupled to her involvement as president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers in 1949, bolstered her career.[10] The organization, jointly founded by Mary McLeod Butane, was made up of Black designers who were dedicated to providing opportunities for networking, professional development, and funding young designers and their endeavors.[1] There was also a focus on bridging the divide between the black fashion world and the mainstream fashion industry.

Label in dress (c.1940s) worn by Ella Fitzgerald.

In the 1950s, she moved "Chez Zelda" to 151 57th Street in Midtown.[5][11][1] She had a staff of nine dressmakers and charged almost $1,000 per couture gown.[3] Overall, Wynn was widely known to create dresses that accentuated curves whilst delivering a look of powerful femininity. She famously claimed, "I just had a God- given talent for making people beautiful" in an interview with the New York Times in 1994.[12]

Playboy Bunny suit[edit]

Wynn's reputed formfitting gowns that featured an hourglass figure, low necklines and tight waists was well suited to the concept for the Bunny suit.[13] Her role in glamorizing women caught the attention of Playboy's Hugh Hefner who commissioned Zelda to design bunny costumes for the Playboy Playmates, an idea suggested by Victor Lownes. She created the original Playboy Bunny costume, which was presented at the opening of the first Playboy Club in Chicago, IL on February 29, 1960. It was also the first commercial uniform to be registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.[14][15][16]

Activism through fashion[edit]

Zelda Wynn Valdes was known to consistently contribute to social work and community building. Beginning in the 1960s. She directed the Fashion and Design Workshop of the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Community Teams (HARYOU-ACT). Valdes taught costume designing skills and facilitated fabric donations to the student workshops.[1] Additionally, she was one of the founders of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, an industry group intended to promote black talent in the fashion industry.[5][17][18] This group was established with the sponsorship of the National Council of Negro Women.[1] Continuing in her dedication to her community, she notably participated in charity fashion shows for Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Salvation Army, New York Baptist Home for the Aged, and Jack and Jill.[1]

Her role as a communal contributor to the African American society also extended to her role in the Civil Rights movement. Wynn's fashion career was inherently connected to the Civil Right movement, as her success came at a time during racial segregation in the United States. In effect, there was a segregation in the fashion industry separating the industry created by black designers and the mainstream fashion world.[1] However through her achievement and success in the fashion world, she was conducive to establishing a positive black identity.[1]

Later career[edit]

In 1970, Arthur Mitchell asked Valdes to design costumes for his new company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem.[11] She closed her business in 1989[4] but continued to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death in 2001 at the age of 100.[11] During her time at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, she worked on a total of 82 ballets productions in over 22 countries until her death.[13]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Deihl, Nancy (2018). The Hidden History of American Fashion. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 223–236. ISBN 9781350000469.
  2. ^ Julee Wilson (February 7, 2013). "Zelda Wynn Valdes: Black Fashion Designer Who Created The Playboy Bunny Outfit (PHOTOS)". HuffPost. Archived from the original on February 17, 2021. Retrieved February 17, 2021.
  3. ^ a b Ford, Tanisha C. (January 31, 2019). "Zelda Wynn, Fashion Designer to the Stars". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d Gonzalez, David (March 23, 1994). "ABOUT NEW YORK; Matriarch of Dancers Sews Clothing of Delight". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved July 4, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e Deihl, Nancy (March 31, 2015). "A profile of Zelda Wynn Valdes: costume and fashion designer". Oxford University Press Blog. Oxford University Press. Retrieved July 4, 2016.
  6. ^ "Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes (1901–2001) •". June 9, 2017. Retrieved March 7, 2023.
  7. ^ Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company. March 8, 2017.
  8. ^ Deihl, Nancy (February 8, 2018). The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th-century Women Designers. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-350-00048-3.
  9. ^ "Fashionable Game-Changer: Zelda Wynn Valdes". Retrieved July 4, 2016.
  10. ^ a b #teamEBONY (March 26, 2012). "Fashionable Game-Changer: Zelda Wynn Valdes". Ebony. Retrieved April 9, 2023.
  11. ^ a b c Gainer, Nichelle. "Fashionable Game-Changer: Zelda Wynn Valdes". Ebony/Style. Johnson Publishing. Retrieved April 28, 2014.
  12. ^ "Zelda Wynn Valdes first black Fashion designer and costumer to open her own shop". fashionsizzle.com. Retrieved April 9, 2023.
  13. ^ a b Jones, Ingrid (November 2, 2020). "Zelda Wynn Valdes: The Black Designer Behind The Playboy Bunny". Women's Republic. Retrieved April 9, 2023.
  14. ^ Candace Jordan (March 4, 2017). "Woman's History Month: The designer behind the iconic Playboy Bunny costume". Chicagonow.com. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
  15. ^ Julee Wilson (February 7, 2013). "Zelda Wynn Valdes: Black Fashion Designer Who Created The Playboy Bunny Outfit (PHOTOS)". Huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
  16. ^ Dominique Norman (May 10, 2017). "The Influential Designer Behind the Playboy Bunny Uniform". Observer.com. Retrieved June 29, 2018.
  17. ^ "4 Decades Of Fine Local Fashions A Black Design Group Takes To The Runway Today For Its Big Annual Show, And Plans To Start Making Noise". Retrieved July 4, 2016.
  18. ^ Reed Miller, Rosemary E (2006). Threads of time: the fabric of history : profiles of African American dressmakers and designers, 1850-2002. T & S Press. ISBN 0970971303. OCLC 172683699. Retrieved August 18, 2017.