A gown by Valdes

Zalda Wynn Valdez was a trailblazing designer, whose career lasted from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. She is most famous for having designed the first Playboy Bunny costume.

Valdes fitting Dorothy Danridge with a custom gown

Born in 1905, Zelda Wynn Valdes got her start as a dressmaker in White Plains, New York. During this time, she also worked in a high-end boutique, first as a stock girl before working her way up to sales and alterations, becoming the first black sales clerk and tailor at the shop. She later said that the racism she faced on the job meant that “”It wasn’t a pleasant time, but the idea was to see what I could do.”.

In 1935 she opened her own business, where she did alterations and eventually custom dresses for customers. After growing as a designer during this time, in 1948 she opened her studio, “Zelda Wynn” on Broadway, making it the first black-owned business there. From there, she dressed many jazz singers, actors, and other celebrities. This included Dorothy Danridge, one of the first successful black movie stars, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, and even the wedding party of Nat King Cole and Maria Cole.

Joyce Bryant was a dedicated client of Zelda Wynn Valdes, and the designs Valdes created for her were integral in shaping her stardom. The fitted and feminine dresses helped her gain her title as “The Black Marilyn Monroe” in the early 1950’s.

At the peak of her success, Valdes ran a shop with nine employees working solely on custom gowns, each of which cost around $1,000, which is equivalent to nearly $13,000 today.

Her most iconic work, however, was the design of the very first Playboy Bunny costume. Her design skills caught the eye of Hugh Hefner, who hired her to make the bunny costume to be worn by the Playboy Playmates. Valdes’ design was unveiled at the opening of the first Playboy club in 1960. The form-fitting strapless bodysuit was made of rayon-satin and completed with the iconic ears and tail. In the original design, the ears were taller and the collar, bow tie, and cuffs were not included, but Valdes added them later on to complete the bunny look. Though the design has been changed over the decades, it largely follows the same aesthetic that Zelda Wynn Valdes created 60 years ago.

Valdes was also active in the community, teaching costume design to students in Harlem throughout the 60’s, as well as being a co-founder of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, an organization that helped promote black designers. Until her death at the age of 97 in 2001, she designed costumes for the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Zelda Wynn Valdes was a trailblazer in fashion, whose mark on the world is seen even today. Having found success in the 1930’s, she is considered one of the first black fashion designers to find success in the United States. Not only did she break barriers in the world of fashion, but she also supported other black artists of her time by designing for them and helping them craft their own images as musicians and stars. The Playboy Bunny costume she designed became the blueprint for what is now a pop culture icon.

Her designs, which were carefully tailored and focused on the female form, and the simple, timeless elegance of her designs means they would not look out of place on a red carpet even today, as these colorized images show.

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