June 28, 1905 - Sept 26, 2001
As Black History Month transitions to Women's History Month for March, it's time to revisit the American contribution of Zelda Valdes.
Much is beloved and well-known about Hugh Hefner, the publisher behind the Playboy empire and lavish mansion lifestyle, but in making his signature logo "the Bunny" an American icon, he had some help.
The Playboy Club was launched in 1960, at a time such as now when civil rights and equality were a forefront topic of social and economic life. Not only were minority groups fighting to be seen and heard but women were also.
Both black and a woman, Zelda Valdes was allegedly personally commissioned by Hugh Hefner to design the curvaceous costume for the women he employed as waitstaff for largely male patrons. They would later symbolize female independence and power, in addition to their sexuality.
Zelda was the first black designer to open her own dressmaking studio in New York City (in what is now Washington Heights). She learned sewing skills in her uncle's tailoring shop and eventually worked in boutiques selling to customers as well.
Clients such as entertainers Josephine Baker, Gladys Knight, Dorothy Dandridge, and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, increased her popularity as a designer to the point that during the 1950s she was able to charge more than $1000 per gown.
It was close confidant and business partner to Hugh Hefner, Victor Lowness III that suggested that Valdes create the Bunny costume based upon the body types she was known for accentuating.
Zelda and Hefner's bunny costume was reportedly the first commercial uniform to be registered for trademark by the United States and were also made custom for each employee who waitressed. She later also designed the costumes for several productions by the Dance Theater of Harlem, beginning in the early 1970s.
Valdes also lent her skills as a designer to teach students and help promote black talent by partnering with other established organizations.
Unfortunately, despite her long life and her death at 96, Zelda Valdes did not receive nearly any of the recognition that her costumes for Playboy did.
Moving forward, when you see another Playboy reference or decide to rock the Playboy Bunny logo, also think of Zelda who contributed to the successful brand identity that rarely, if ever, promoted hers.
New York Times: