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RED BANK: SPOTLIGHT ON FASHION’S HISTORIC ROLE

Ebony Fashion Fair styles represented in costumes designed by the Two River Theater.  (Photo by Brian Donohue. Click to enlarge.)

By BRIAN DONOHUE

Two titans of Red Bank’s cultural scene teamed up over the weekend to tell the story – in words and costumes – of a glamorous and crucial aspect of African American history.

If you’ve never heard of the Ebony Fashion Fair, listen up. If you have, check this out.

Author and journalist Tanisha Ford (left) and Gilda Rogers, Executive Director of Red Bank’s T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center at Friday’s event commemorating Ebony Magazine and the Ebony Fashion Fair.  (Photo by Brian Donohue. Click to enlarge.)

For 50 years, the annual Ebony Magazine Fashion Fair was the nation’s biggest, most glamorous African-American run fashion and social event of the year. 

The fair, which began in 1958, also raised tens of millions of dollars for the civil rights movement and charities like the United Negro College Fund. 

On Friday, Red Bank’s T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center examined the role the fair played in black culture, the economy, and as a major fund raising vehicle for the civil rights struggle. 

“Welcome to Our Met Gala, a Salute to Ebony Magazine and Ebony Fashion Fair” featured video, guest speakers and several costumes representing the fashions from the peak of the fair’s history designed by Two River Theater’s costume department.

“At this theater, we tell stories, that’s what we do,’’ Fortune Center Executive Director Gilda Rogers told the crowd. “We are telling stories you don’t often hear.”

Rogers was already organizing the event for Woman’s History Month when she decided to reach out to the person who literally wrote the book on the topic: Tanisha Ford, author of “Our Secret Society, Mollie Moon and the Glamour, Money, and Power Behind the Civil Rights Movement.

Ford immediately agreed to come to Red Bank as featured speaker for Friday’s event (not surprising to those who have found themselves in the spell of Rogers’ charisma).

A CUNY professor who writes for the NY Times, Harper’s Bazaar and other publications, Ford called it her “life’s work” to tell the story of the black press, including Ebony Magazine and thousands of other publications. That includes how a civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. found a crucial funding source in a women-run fashion fair. 

“It’s those kinds of pieces of our history that mainstream media would never allow us to know if it weren’t for us being our own storytellers,” she said. “The keepers of our own history – and “herstory.”

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