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  • Writer's pictureMikelle Drew

28 Days of Black Fashion History: Ruby Bailey

Ruby Bailey in one of her many ornate gowns.

Actress, painter, fashion designer. By today's standards, Ruby Bailey would be considered a poly-hyphenate, a triple threat. But in the 1930s and 40s, she was just another Negro woman who could sew, an unfortunate designation for many talented Black designers, particularly female designers, at that time.

A Bermudan immigrant, Bailey arrived in the US in 1912 and became a resident of Harlem, USA, the town she would live in until her death in 2003 at the age of 97. She grew up during one of the most creative periods in US history, the Harlem Renaissance, so it only makes sense that she embraced the arts: visual and performance.

She was very social, and her expressive and flamboyant fashion creations made her a regular in the pages of the NY Amsterdam News, the New York Age, and other New York City based Black newspapers. She modeled her own designs, and in her words, she "modeled her imaginative collection in fashion shows…up-town-down-town-out-of-town, while participating in a wide range of art and little theatre activities.”

Ruby Bailey in her "Eve and the Apple" ensemble at the Bal de Tete,  New York Amsterdam News (November 16, 1963).
Ruby Bailey in her "Eve and the Apple" ensemble at the Bal de Tete, New York Amsterdam News (November 16, 1963).

Bailey was a master beader in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, her talent for beadwork evident in many of her creations. She would also work with costume designer Adrian, who selected some of her designs to be adapted for his own collection after seeing them at the St. Regis hotel.

Detail of Bailey’s beadwork and Afrocentric design

Detail of Bailey’s beadwork and Afrocentric design
Detail of Bailey’s beadwork and Afrocentric design

One of her more famous creations was the “Bugs” cocktail dress that was printed with webs and adorned with spiders and jeweled bees, a dress she wore to the “Bugs” Cotton Extravaganza at the legendary Savoy Ballroom.

Bug dress. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ruby Bailey

In addition to her clothing designs, Bailey also created a series of “mannequins”, small Barbie sized figures made with cotton fiber and glue, which showcased her high level of craftsmanship. From the facial expressions, to the poses and the clothing designs, her “mannequins” rivaled those produced by renowned French designers in the Théâtre de la Mode.

Detail Ruby Bailey “Bug” Dress

Her mannequins (or dolls) have become part of the permanent costume collection in the Museum of the City of New York. Watch a team restore some of them for their "New York at its Core" exhibit.

Like many designers of color at that time, Ruby Bailey very much aware that racism in the fashion industry limited her success and knew that she didn’t get the recognition she deserved because of it. High fashion is notoriously elitist, and especially during the 1930s and 40s, there were very few African American designers who could break through. Even Anne Lowe who designed the most famous wedding dress of the 20th century, Jackie Kennedy’s dress, is still relatively unknown today for her talents.

Most Black designers in the 30s and 40s worked as maids for “elite” white families and were commissioned to produce designs for them. Otherwise, they'd sew for themselves or the community. And since Blacks were not allowed in department stores and boutiques at that time, designers were quite important to the community when people wanted to show off. In Harlem that was on Lenox Avenue, Harlem’s “Fashion Parade” as it was known.

In 2004, when a curator from the Museum of the City of New York acquired a collection of designs and mannequins for their costume collection, she said this about her work: “[ her fashion designs are] artisanal in a folk craft way; bold in pattern, texture, and surface embellishment. . . . She utilized border prints, textural fabrics like hemp, straw, and raffia, and full size plastic fruit, seashells, and beads in her designs. The concept of “less is more” did not factor into Bailey’s work.” (MCNY Blog, January 5, 2016).

Bailey's creativity took many forms, and she worked with all different materials. She was a true artist, and while it was unfortunate that she was not able to reach higher heights and get more recognition in the fashion world while she was alive, I am so happy to celebrate her now and let more people know about this incredibly talented woman.


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