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  • Mikelle Drew

28 Days of Black Fashion History: Zelda Wynn Valdes

She is probably one of the most talented evening and costume designers you’ve never heard of, and yet Zelda Wynn Valdes designed gowns for many of 1940’s and 50’s well known entertainers and is credited with creating the sexiest working uniform in history.

Zelda Wynn Valdes, originally from Pennsylvania, began her career working in her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York. Later, she would work in an upscale fashion boutique, starting as a stock clerk and working her way up to doing alterations and selling. Some of the clients were skeptical, wondering if this young Black woman had the necessary skills to service their needs. She said, “It wasn’t a pleasant time, [b]ut the idea was to see what I could do.”

Dorothy Dandridge being fitted for a gown by designer, Zelda Wynn Valdes in a photo from a 1954 issue of Hue

Proving that she not only had the skill but the talent, she began to develop a following, and in 1948, Valdes opened a shop on Broadway and West 158th street. “Chez Zelda”, as the shop was called, would eventually move downtown to 57th street and attracted stylish women from celebrities and entertainers to community leaders.

“I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful,” Zelda Wynn said in a New York Times article. And that she did for many starlets of the 1950’s. From Dorothy Dandridge to Josephine Baker to Mae West to Ella Fitzgerald, Zelda Wynn’s hip-hugging creations accentuated the female form and were unapologetically sexy.

Mae West in gowns by Zelda Wynn Valdes.

In fact, her designs helped transform the career of singer, Joyce Bryant. Zelda Wynn convinced her to change from wearing her “sweet” dresses that hid her curves to Zelda Wynn’s skin-tight, low cut gowns. Her career took off!

Singer Joyce Bryant wearing Zelda Wynn’s dresses.

Photos by Michael Ochs