Hidden Figures: Zelda Wynn Valdes #BlackHERstoryMonth 18/28
Zelda Wynn Valdes was an African-American fashion designer and costumer famous for dressing Black celebrities as well as designing the infamous Playboy Bunny costume. Valdes learned how to sew by watching her grandmother’s seamstress and making dresses for her dolls as a child, eventually making clothes for her grandmother and working for her uncle as a tailor. She got a job as a stock girl for a high-end boutique, and made her way up to salesclerk (becoming the first Black salesclerk in the shop) and making alterations (becoming the first Black tailor in the shop).
In 1948 she opened her own shop on Broadway and West 158th St in New York City, making her the first Black woman to open a shop on the major street. Later she moved ‘Chez Zelda,’ as she called it, to Midtown. The boutique was a runaway success, netting her celebrity clientele such as Josephine Baker, Mae West, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, Marian Anderson, and Joyce Bryant. Valdes created what later became Bryant’s signature sexy look, which earned her the nickname 'The Black Marilyn Monroe.’
In the 1950’s, Hugh Hefner took notice of her famously glamorous designs and commissioned her to create a costume for his Playboy Bunnies. Valdes came up with the sweetheart neckline satin leotard, bowtie, and bunny ears still used today.
In 1970, dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell asked Valdes to design costumes for his new company, the Dance Theater of Harlem. and she went on to design costumes for eighty-two productions by 1992. Although she closed her business and retired from fashion design in 1989, she continued to work with the Dance Theater of Harlem until her death in 2001. She was 96.