• 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 Archives_Getty Images

Zelda Wynn has been the president of the New York chapter of NAFAD, the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, an organization of Black designers. During that time, she worked with publicist Eleanor Lambert to help Black designers gain more recognition. And in 1970, Arthur Mitchell asked her to join him at the Dance Theater of Harlem as the head costume designer. She stayed there until her death in 2001 at the age of 96.

Zelda Wynn with Arthur Mitchell at the Dance Theater of Harlem.

So, . . . about that sexy working uniform. Zelda Wynn was commissioned by Hugh Hefner to create the legendary Playboy Bunny costume. And while it’s unclear if Zelda Wynn was the sole creator, the bullet-shaped, low-cut, tight fitting satin bodice has her design aesthetic all over it.

Singer Jackie Wilson autographing the cuff of a Playboy Bunny at a dinner for the Motion Picture Pioneers Association at the Playboy Club in New York. November 19, 1962. (Photo: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Did you know Zelda Wynn dressed the entire bridal party at the 1948 wedding of Marie Ellington and Nat “King” Cole, an event that brought together the upper stratum of black society in New York, taking place at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem which was officiated by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Wedding party of Nat “King” Cole and Marie Ellington at their reception at the Belmont Plaza Hotel. (Photo by Lisa Larsen)

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