Love it or hate it, the infamous Playboy bunny suit — iconic strapless corset, bunny ears, pantyhose, bow tie, collar, cuffs, and fluffy cottontail — will forever be immortalized in popular culture as a symbol of female seduction and allure.
But what you probably didn’t know was that Zelda Wynn Valdes, a black woman, sewed the original costumes — and that the late Hugh Hefner personally commissioned her to do it.
“Fitting curvaceous women was what Zelda did, so it was a perfect fit,” says Nancy Deihl, author of “The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovery 20th-Century Women Designers” and director of New York University’s costume studies program. “Even though she’s [often] erroneously credited with the costume’s [original] design, it’s been the key thing that’s led to the rediscovery of her.”
But of course, there’s so much more to this incredible woman’s legacy than Hefner’s vision and Playboy lifestyle. The eldest of seven children, Valdes (born as Zelda Christian Barbour) was raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she learned to sew from watching her grandmother’s seamstress. Her first attempt at design came when she offered to create a dress for her grandmother. “She said, ‘Daughter, you can’t sew for me. I’m too tall and too big,'” Valdes recalled in a 1994 interview with The New York Times, but the dress she created was a perfect fit. After graduating from Chambersburg High School in 1923, her immediate family moved to White Plains, New York, where Valdes worked at her uncle’s tailoring shop. In the 1930s, she worked as a stock girl at an upscale boutique, where she eventually became the first black sales clerk and tailor. In 1948, Valdes opened her own boutique, called Chez Zelda, making her the first black person to own a store on Broadway in Manhattan.
In her store, Valdes sold her signature low-cut, body hugging gowns, which unapologetically extenuated a woman’s curves. Valdes’ sexy-but-sophisticated dresses were worn and adored by Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, to name a few. She even designed Maria Ellington’s “Blue Ice” wedding dress when she walked down the aisle and tied the knot with jazz singer Nat King Cole in 1948.
NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 19: Rock and roll singer Jackie Wilson poses for a portrait with a group of Playboy Bunnies at a dinner for the Motion Picture Pioneers Association at the Playboy Club on November 19, 1962 in New York, New York. (Photo by PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Valdes also played a critical role in defining the look of cabaret singer Joyce Bryant, who was known for her four-octave range and classic records, such as “Drunk with Love” and “Love for Sale.” When the two first met, Valdes suggested that exuding some sensuality would jumpstart Bryant’s career — and she was right. A white sequined gown adorned with red chiffon perfectly complemented the silver-haired beauty’s hourglass figure. Another signature look featured white embroidery on a strapless pale pink gown, flowing with pink chiffon and creating a mermaid effect. The dresses were so tight and well fitted that she couldn’t sit down while wearing them, but it was a small price to pay for the bold statement they made. Bryant’s newfound sex symbol status earned her a spread in Life magazine, as well as the nicknames “black Marilyn Monroe” and “bronze blond bombshell.”
“Zelda was operating in a time when Parisian fashion was really ascendant, so it’s pretty remarkable what she was able to accomplish,” says Constance C. R. White, author of “How to Slay: Inspiration from the Queens and Kings of Black Style” and former executive fashion director at Elle Magazine. “She definitely helped to popularize and define the look of a woman’s curvy silhouette, but it was always elegant. The femininity that Zelda promulgated into her designs was very powerful.”
In fact, her ability to enhance a woman’s femininity is likely what caught the attention of Hefner to begin with. Valdes took immense pride in making women of all shapes and sizes look and feel like goddesses, as well as the vast amount of detail stitched into every single custom-fitted creation. In other words, she was the go-to designer for any woman who sought to turn heads in a one-of-a-kind freakum dress.
And while most fashion designers aren’t always able to successfully switch into the costume design lane — the two jobs are very different — Valdes was a rarity who successfully toggled back and forth between both worlds. Outside of Playboy, Valdes designed looks for classical singer Marian Anderson’s concert recitals and actress Constance Bennett’s presentation to Queen Elizabeth, according to Deihl’s “The Hidden History of American Fashion.”
Simply put, she was a master of her craft: Valdes proudly reminisced about the days of working with jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, saying, “I was able to measure her once, but thereafter she was so busy that she didn’t have the time. She would order — always in a rush — and I would study photos of her and guess her increasing size. She always said they fit and she’d order more, always three at a time. I never had more than three to four days to finish the gowns. I am pleased to say that I never missed a delivery.”
At the age of 65, Valdes showed no signs of slowing down, either. In 1970, she was approached by Arthur Mitchell, who was the first black principal dancer to perform in the New York City Ballet. He wanted Valdes to design costumes for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she worked until her death in 2001. As the trailblazing matriarch, she designed costumes for over 80 productions, modernizing our ideas of ballet both on and off stage.
“She did away with the traditional pink tights of ballet … all the dancers wore tights that were dyed to match their skin tone,” Deihl says. “The tradition in ballet is everybody’s supposed to be the same hue, but they celebrated all the different colors of their dancers, which was part of a new aesthetic that championed for diversity.”
Later in life, Valdes made it her mission to leave the door wide open for all the black women designers following in her footsteps. As someone who faced discrimination in what is still a predominately white industry, she led the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, a coalition that was founded with the sole purpose of promoting black designers. Her work helped to pave the way for all black fashion and costume designers today in Hollywood; women like Ruth E. Carter and Tracy Reese. “There’s an incredible need for the history of people of the African diaspora to be told in regards to fashion and style and their contributions,” White says. “Zelda falls in line with some of the most influential designers of the era. And being able to master both costume design and street wear was remarkable and part of her staying power.”
Despite transforming careers and her contributions to companies like Playboy, however, Valdes remains overlooked in fashion history courses and textbooks, which begs the question: How many more Zeldas are out there that we don’t know about?
“Back in those days, women designers were boiled down to seamstresses,” says Nichelle Gainer, author of “Vintage Black Glamour” and “Vintage Black Glamour: Gentlemen’s Quarters.” “When you bring black women designers into the conversation, they were almost always photographed in work mode, so they weren’t regarded as artists. Zelda’s achievements deserve to be recognized because no one else was doing what she was doing. She was a true pioneer.”
Once you start peeling back the layers of Valdes’ lengthy career, you discover that there is so much to take away from her story. As Valdes once said of her life’s calling, “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful.” And she did exactly that — without realizing she was forging her own path, and that future generations would laud her efforts and remember her name.