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January 30, 2023
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Ruby Bailey 

Ruby Bailey was born in Bermuda in 1905 and immigrated to the United States of America with her mother and sister in 1912. She resided in Harlem until 2003, when she died at the age of 97. Bailey enjoyed both visual and performing arts while growing up in Harlem, engaging in fashion shows, art exhibitions, and theatrical productions at venues such as St. Phillips Episcopal Church, the Savoy Ballroom, and Small’s Paradise. She was particularly well-known for her portraits and illustration work. W.C. Handy, often referred to as the “father of the blues,” stated in the New York Age on June 8, 1940, regarding her portrait of Richard B. Harrison, the actor who played ‘de Lawd’ in the Broadway play Green Pastures, “[I]f I had a million dollars, I would gladly make you the recipient in exchange for the picture.” Bailey’s exhibition of 19 original costume designs at the Alma Reed Galleries on 57th Street was highlighted in the August 16, 1941 New York Amsterdam-Star News, which noted she was the sole “Negro” artist.

Bailey possessed the flamboyantly expressive personality that is frequently associated with New York, and particularly Harlem. She was a member of a number of social and art clubs and a fixture on the Harlem social scene, necessitating a sizable wardrobe. This may have aided her fashion design career, as African Americans were previously denied access to popular clothes and retail enterprises. Although Bailey’s work has not been documented outside of New York, the African American press, including the Amsterdam News and the New York Age, has extensively covered her, publishing photographs of her wearing daring creations that are unheard of in other parts of the country but are perfectly appropriate for the New York fashion scene. One such design was a zebra-printed “African”-inspired jacket that was shown in the 1949 New York Amsterdam News.

The City Museum acquired 29 “Manikins” (mannequins). They are Barbie-sized cotton fiber and glue figures. The attention to detail in the face expressions, delicate fingers, stances, surroundings, and clothing designs rivals that of the mannequins developed by French designers following World War II for the Theatre de la Mode. Bailey’s figures wear beaded robes, leather suits, fur coats, as well as African and Native American garb. Their haircuts range from Afros to cornrows to short blond bobs, all of which are fitting for their respective characters and attire. Complementing the clothes are snake skin boots, sandals, gloves, and jewelry. Near the end of her life, as she began to lose her vision due to glaucoma and became concerned about the preservation of her legacy, Ms. Bailey became resentful of the lack of professional respect she had gotten throughout the years. “She was well conscious that her race prevented her from achieving any level of international or even national prominence as a designer,” Ms. Masonson explained. “And she believed she has the ability to earn that.”

Ms. Bailey was almost certainly correct. The world of haute fashion is nearly impenetrably exclusive, and just a few African-American designers, particularly in her day, cracked the color barrier. Even Ann Lowe, the designer of Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding gown, is a footnote to Vogue readers.

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, black designers frequently worked as maids or laundresses for what Valerie Chisholm, a staff member at the Black Fashion Museum in Washington, described as a “elite Caucasian family,” whose members noticed the craftsmanship of their employee’s clothing and commissioned her to create items for them. Otherwise, the designer would sew at night for her own use and the benefit of her community.

“Because blacks were not permitted to shop in department shops or boutiques during that time period,” Ms. Chisholm explained, “the community relied on the talents of dressmakers and designers who worked long hours and double shifts.” Their craftsmanship was frequently on display in Harlem’s “Fashion Parade,” a nighttime moniker for Lenox Avenue.

Although Ruby Bailey appears to have created exclusively for herself and her sister, Beryl, with whom she shared an apartment on 151st Street, her biography recalls one piece that appears to have satisfied all of her artistic ambitions: “A photograph of ‘Modoc,’ King of the Elephants, emerged in The Daily News wearing her most amazing creation, a 9-by-12-foot crimson velvet costume with glittering sequin embroidery portraying Father Time, at Madison Square Garden’s Barnum & Bailey Circus (unrelated). She was overjoyed!”

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