28 Days of Black History: Lois K. Alexander
Updated: Feb 12
Though Lois K. Alexander-Lane was said to have been a fashion designer, her legacy will be tied to not what she designed but her efforts to bring more attention and recognition to other Black designers by establishing the Black Fashion Museum.
The Harlem extension of the Black Fashion Museum, before it closed its doors in 2007.
Lois Alexander & Barbara Burwell at the Black Fashion Museum during Harlem Week, 1989. (Photo by Jerry Engel/NY Post Archives / © NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1916, Lois Marie Kindle's early fashion influences came from peering into department store windows. Because of racism and segregation, she was not allowed to go into the department stores to purchase anything. So she would sketch what she saw in the store windows, and then, she would purchase materials from the Five and Dime and made similar garments for her mother, sisters, and her dolls.
She graduated from what is now Hampton University in Virginia and made her way north to New York, receiving a Master’s degree in retailing, fashion & merchandising from NYU. Her research for her master’s thesis on Blacks in retailing led to her discovery of just how many Black designers were in fashion but often went unrecognized and uncelebrated for their talents. This was the catalyst for Harlem Institute of Fashion (established in 1966) and the Black Fashion Museum (established in 1979), the beginnings of Lois K. Lane's commitment to letting the world know about the contributions of Black people to the fashion industry.
The two institutions were a pillar of excellence for Harlem: one teaching tailoring, millinery, dressmaking as well as mathematics and Black history; the other showcasing the talents of Black designers or garments worn by Black celebrities. She eventually opened an extension of the museum in Washington, D.C. However, all 3 institutions struggled to get traffic and stay open and eventually closed their doors in 2007.
Lois K. Alexander with a designer piece housed in the Black Fashion Museum.
Alexander-Lane died in 2007 at the age of 91. Her daughter, Joyce Alexander Bailey, has since donated the collection to the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and consists of pieces by Rosa Parks, Anne Lowe, Geoffrey Holder, Stephen Burrows and countless vintage pieces by unknown African American dressmakers. There, Lois’ objective–to “dispel the myth that Black people were newfound talent in the fashion industry”–can be carried out for years to come.
One of the many rare items in the designer collection now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History in Washingtion, D.C.: silk velvet, satin and fur opera coat made by former slave, Louvenia Price, circa 1900
A silk, tulle and linen dress designed by Anne Lowe (1958),
one of several from Lois Alexander’s collection now housed
at the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History.
Did you know Lois K. Alexander served as the first fashion director of Harlem Week? She also founded the National Association of Milliners, Dressmakers and Tailors; was a former president of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers; and was a charter member of the National Council of Negro Women?