Zelda Valdés: The Cuban Woman who Dressed Hollywood


In “Zelda Valdés: The Cuban Woman who Dressed Hollywood,” Carlos Ferrera Torres writes about Valdés, whose parents (Cuban father, José Valdés and Arican-American mother, Ann Barbour) met in Havana in 1902. Zelda Wynn Valdés would become a well-known fashion designer and costumer who made outfits for leading performers through the decades, including Josephine Baker, Joyce Bryant, Marlene Dietrich, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, Mae West, Gladys Knight, and Jessye Norman. [She also created the Playboy bunny outfit.] Ferrera Torres writes:

[. . .] A few weeks ago, on the Internet, I once again ran across Zelda Wynn Valdés, one of the women Nancy Deihl told me about, who I have to publicly thank for an invaluable edition of History of American Dress [. . .], a collection [. . .] in which Zelda Wynn is the subject of a substantial chapter about her private life and her trajectory on the backstage of the big stars.

[. . .] There are few—repeated and very brief—biographies available about Zelda Wynn, all with very little personal information, and focused more on her professional work as a stylist than on her almost inscrutable private life. The reason is that Zelda was a woman who was very protective of her privacy, and hermetic in terms of revealing details about her origins or about anything else related to her early years. She always considered herself African-American like her mother, even though was not born in North America. She was also an exemplary daughter, and an unconditional friend, with a strong sense of duty, dignity and honor that, in her opinion, should distinguish the modern black woman. [. . .]

[. . .] Zelda was the embodiment of a discrete elite of “people of color” who advocated “normality” within the white world, and accepted the challenge of excelling [and being recognized] for their qualities and their education, [beyond the parameters of color].

[. . .] Her parents José Valdés and Ann Barbour had met in Havana in mid-1902, the year in which her mother’s older brother embarked on the conquest of the nascent retail clothing business in Cuba [. . .].

The ateliers, and the so-called “Casas de Vestir,” which offered an exclusive service of custom-made clothing to Cuban women from the upper middle class, were then becoming fashionable in Cuba. Ann Barbour’s older brother, integrated into the family business, set out to expand the company with a partner, opening a small atelier in Havana on Mercaderes Street, where he brought in his sister Ann as a dressmaker and saleswoman. [. . .]

In New York, in 1948, at age 38, Zelda opened her first boutique, “Chez Zelda”—the first of its kind in the entire city, and owned by an African-American woman. It was located in what is now called Washington Heights, on Broadway at West 158th Street. She was aided in this business venture by her younger sister, Maria Barbour, who was in charge of personally supervising the store. Immediately, Zelda Wynn’s boutique attracted the most elegant celebrities and wealthy women from all walks of life.

Almost 40 years later, Zelda opened an atelier that was ten times larger, in downtown Manhattan, on West 57th Street. Even then, at 65, an age at which most designers would have retired, Zelda responded to the demand of Maestro Arthur Mitchell, creator of the first black ballet company, to design the ball gowns for the dancers of the nascent Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Thanks to one of her first clients, the wife of a director of a black swing band of the 40s, Zelda entered fully into the world of show business. People who visited her atelier included Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, Joyce Bryant, Maria Cole (Nat’s wife), Edna Robinson (Sugar Ray’s wife), and subsequent superstars such as Gladys Knight and opera diva Jessye Norman. She also designed dresses for Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, who considered her the best designer in Hollywood. [. . .]

[Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero.] For full article, see https://cubaposible.com/zelda-waldes-cubana-hollywood/

Also see https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/07/zelda-wynn-valdes-playboy-bunny_n_2637802.html

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