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  • Mikelle Drew

28 Days of Black Fashion History: Ruby Bailey

Updated: 3 days ago

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).

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

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.