August 3, 2012, 1:39 PMBy CATHY HORYN
By CATHY HORYN
Some years ago I was invited to Eleanor Lambert’s apartment on Fifth Avenue to observe the selection process for the International Best Dressed List, a publicity vehicle she drove with a keen eye to what lay ahead. Royals and socialites were always welcome on the B.D.L., and of course the odd eccentric — up to a point. Daphne Guinness secured her place as of Hall of Famer in 1994, and Anna Piaggi, the dandified Italian editor, somewhat belatedly in 2007. But Isabella Blow never made it.
That afternoon in Ms. Lambert’s faded living room the discussion was quite polite, if pointed. (I sensed that some socialites would never meet the entry standards, which were vague to me, and that their names were dropped into the ring basically so they could be swatted away.) I’m tempted to say that the committee members accepted their duties in the same lighthearted spirit of the list.
After all, they were not handing out Nobel Prizes. But in fact most of the debate was dead serious.
Since Vanity Fair took over the list, following Ms. Lambert’s death, in 2003, the choices have seemed no less glamorous but perhaps more relevant. This year’s group includes the actresses Jessica Chastain and Fan Bingbing, various young royals (Prince Harry) and the pop star Jay-Z. The Hollywood Reporter pooh-poohed the choices (what about Emma Stone and Michelle Williams?), while New York magazine seemed of the opinion that the committee should have lowered the ax on some of its choices. It was not selective enough.
While this nonsense was going on, I met with Joy Bivins, a curator of the Chicago History Museum, and Virginia Heaven, an assistant professor of fashion studies at Columbia College in Chicago, to discuss an exhibition at the museum based on the Ebony Fashion Fair. The touring extravaganza, which began in 1958 in New Orleans and ran until 2009, had been the idea of Eunice Johnson, of the Johnson Publishing company. The Fashion Fair was important to African-Americans, as well as a source of funds ($55 million in total) for civil rights initiatives, hospitals and scholarships. Moreover, Ms. Johnson purchased all of the garments, some 8,000, from European couture houses and many in New York. She also brought attention to black designers, like Patrick Kelly, and helped start the careers of countless black models, like Pat Cleveland. The Chicago exhibition, set to open in March, will feature 67 outfits from her archive.
Ms. Johnson was far ahead of her time in recognizing that fashion should be beautiful but not elitist. I was surprised, then, to discover that she never made the Best Dressed List. Not in any year. Even if she had more substantial accolades during her lifetime, surely her activities and personal taste merited this small attention.
“I was sort of surprised myself, because Ms. Lambert was always promoting black models,” said her biographer, John Tiffany, after checking the B.D.L. records the other day. “It’s shocking that Ms. Johnson was not on the list.” Mr. Tiffany suspects (correctly, I think) that Ms. Lambert felt a rivalry with Ms. Johnson. After all, as the first organizer of the American fashion shows, Ms. Lambert was on a mission of her own, and her chief constituency was the out-of-town press. At its peak, the Ebony Fashion Fair stopped in about 180 cities. Mr. Tiffany speculates that Ms. Johnson’s success, as well as her wealth, “was a sore spot for Ms. Lambert.”
The doyenne of New York publicists may have also felt a disdain for the Fair’s flamboyance.
In this one respect, the Best Dressed List is not frivolous.