The notorious Playboy bunny suit, with its iconic strapless corset, bunny ears, pantyhose, bow tie, collar, cuffs, and fluffy cottontail, will long be immortalized in popular culture as a symbol of female seduction and attractiveness, whether you love it or detest it. But you probably didn’t realize that the original outfits were sewn by Zelda Wynn Valdes, a black lady who was directly commissioned by the late Hugh Hefner. Of course, Hefner’s vision and Playboy lifestyle are only part of this great woman’s legacy. Valdes (née Zelda Christian Barbour) was the eldest of seven children raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she learnt to sew from her grandmother’s seamstress. When she offered to make a dress for her grandma, it was her first attempt at design. “‘Daughter, you can’t sew for me,’ she remarked. ‘I’m too large and tall,’ says the narrator.” In a 1994 interview with The New York Times, Valdes said that the dress she designed was a perfect fit. Valdes’ immediate family moved to White Plains, New York, after she graduated from Chambersburg High School in 1923, where she worked at her uncle’s sewing store. She began her career as a stock girl at an elite boutique in the 1930s, eventually rising to become the store’s first black sales clerk and tailor. Valdes became the first black woman to operate a store on Broadway in Manhattan when she started her own boutique, Chez Zelda, in 1948.
Valdes’ store featured her characteristic low-cut, body-hugging gowns that proudly flaunted a woman’s curves. Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, to mention a few, wore and appreciated Valdes’ sexy-but-sophisticated gowns. When she walked down the aisle and married jazz musician Nat King Cole in 1948, she designed Maria Ellington’s “Blue Ice” wedding gown.
Her ability to enhance a woman’s femininity is certainly what drew Hefner’s attention in the first place. Valdes took great delight in making women of all shapes and sizes feel and look like gods, as well as the incredible amount of detail embroidered into each and every custom-fitted garment. She was, in other words, the go-to designer for any woman looking to turn heads in a one-of-a-kind freakum gown.
While most fashion designers struggle to transition into the costume design sector because the two vocations are so unlike, Valdes was a rare exception who was able to successfully convert between the two. According to Deihl’s “The Hidden History of American Fashion,” Valdes designed ensembles for classical singer Marian Anderson’s concert recitals and actress Constance Bennett’s presentation to Queen Elizabeth.
Valdes happily reminisced about her days working with jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, stating, “She was a master of her profession.” “I was able to measure her once, but she was so busy that she couldn’t spare the time after that. She’d place an order — usually in a hurry — and I’d study images of her to estimate her growing size. She always claimed that they fit and that she’d order three more at a time. I could never finish the gowns in more than three to four days. I’m happy to report that I’ve never missed a delivery.”
Valdes later made it her life’s purpose to open the door wide for all black women designers to follow in her footsteps. She led the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, a coalition created with the primary objective of encouraging black designers, despite facing discrimination in what is still largely a white industry. Her work paved the path for today’s African-American fashion and costume designers in Hollywood, including Ruth E. Carter and Tracy Reese. “There’s a huge need to tell the history of African diaspora individuals in terms of fashion and design and their contributions,” White says. “Zelda follows in the footsteps of some of the era’s most famous designers. Her ability to grasp both costume design and street dress was impressive, and it contributed to her longevity.”
Zelda Wynn Valdes created gowns and costumes for Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge, Marian Anderson, Josephine Baker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Valdes stated in a New York Times piece about her design approach for Fitzgerald, “I only fit her once in 12 years.” For her, I had to rely entirely on my imagination. She favored elaborate garments embellished with beads and appliqués.” Valdes is perhaps best known for her long-standing affiliation with New York’s Playboy Club, for which she is frequently credited with inventing the Playboy Bunny outfit.
Valdes was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and designed her first garment for her grandmother there. She worked at her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York, as a youngster. Soon after, she began working as the sole black stock girl at a posh boutique. Despite criticism, she entered the field of sales and modifications. Her talent was evident, and she founded her own shop on Broadway and 158th Street—in what is now known as Washington Heights—and subsequently relocated to 57th Street. Her career spans more than 40 years in total. Even after she closed her firm, she continued to work as the Dance Theater of Harlem’s head costume designer.