Jun 1, 2017

A Look at the Black Fashion Museum Collection and Designer Peter Davy

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture

About the National Museum African American History & Culture Fashion Exhibition (NMAAHC)
The Google Cultural Institute (GCI) and NMAAHC online exhibition honors Lois K. Alexander-Lane and designer, Peter Davy. Lane's life-long efforts to document and preserve the contributions of black people to the world of fashion were and continue to be a monumental achievement.  Founded by Lane in 1979, the Black Fashion Museum  collected and exhibited the creations of numerous designers of color, including Caribbean designer, Peter Davy. His designs represent a major collection within the Black Fashion Museum. In addition to presenting information about these two important components of the NMAAHC's fashion collections, this exhibition contains important research and collecting components.We are asking visitors to this online site to assist the Museum by providing historical information, images and media about Peter Davy. During the latter part of his life, Davy became a significant designer of women’s evening wear and the history of his contributions to fashion have been lost.This is an effort to recover the story of his life and work as a designer in the Caribbean and in America. We also hope that this global exposure to the NMAAHC collection will help us identify and collect a carnival costume designed by Davy. Please follow us on social media @nmaahc and search #APeoplesJourney to find more stories from our museum. 

"Fashion is a magical system, and what we see as we leaf through glossy magazines is the look …and what we engage in is no longer only the … process of direct imitation, but …identification."

Blog post by O. Houston, citing Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity.

The Black Fashion Museum
Founded by Lois Kindle Alexander-Lane (1916-2007)

This exhibition looks at the collection from the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s (NMAAHC) Black Fashion Museum (BFM) which includes designs by Peter Davy (1944-1990), an Afro-Caribbean.

The Black Fashion Museum is one of the foundational collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was donated to the Museum in June, 2007 by its founder, Lois Kindle Alexander-Lane (1916-2007), and her daughter, Joyce Bailey. Alexander-Lane passed away in September of that year.

The Black Fashion Museum was founded in Harlem in 1979. According to Mrs. Bailey, the museum was based in Harlem until 1996, when it was relocated to Washington, DC.

A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Lois loved fashion from an early age. She often visited the local department stores with her older sister Sammye to wistfully stare at the beautiful fashions in the store windows. They would then rush home to sketch and re-create the designs that they had seen. Those experiences became the basis for what became a life-long passion, even as she worked in other jobs.

After graduating from Dunbar High School in Little Rock, Lois moved to Hampton, Virginia to attend Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). She graduated in 1938, with a B.S. degree in English and Social Studies.

Shortly after graduating from Hampton University in 1938, she settled in Washington, DC where she became a 36-year employee of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a charter member of the National Council of Negro Women, an owner (1950-1955) of The Needle Nook boutique, and a freelance photographer. The boutique was located at 2700 Vermont Ave, NW.

After Alexander-Lane left the District of Columbia and then returned some thirty years later, the building would become the home of the Black Fashion Museum.

In the early 1960s, HUD transferred Lois to New York City. In 1963, she received a master's degree in retailing from New York University. Her thesis, "The Role of the Negro in Retailing in New York City from 1863 to the Present," received the Stern Brothers Award for Best Thesis. The research for her thesis spurred a desire to inform others about the unrecognized African Americans who were part of the history of American fashion, and to create opportunities for African Americans who wanted to enter the fashion industry.

In 1964, she opened another boutique. It was known as Lois Alexander and Company at 214 W. 125th Street.

In 1966, she founded two organizations: The Harlem Institute of Fashion (HIF) to educate youth about the achievements of blacks in fashion and to support their desires to become part of the fashion industry, and the National Association of Milliners, Dressmakers and Tailors (NAMDT) to develop practical means to assist HIF graduates find jobs in fashion.

This 1987 HIF flyer illustrates the kind of programs that they produced. It also demonstrates that Alexander-Lane was familiar with Peter Davy at least two years after he arrived in New York. He is listed twice under the category of designers.

In 1978 HIF received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for $20,000 "to establish a fashion museum and sponsor seminars and workshops."

The grant allowed Alexander-Lane to travel across the country to find and acquire garments created by black designers. This field work allowed her to document the presence of black designers of fashion, costumes, hats and accessories.

View the fashion accessories in the NMAAHC collection.

Lois Kindle Alexander-Lane collected items made and worn by enslaved people, as well as designers and seamstress like Ann Lowe and Rosa Parks.

Ann Lowe (1898-1981), one of America’s most significant fashion designers, was born in Clayton, Alabama, the daughter and granddaughter of seamstresses. Lowe was extremely talented having started sewing at a very early age.

Around 1928, after years of making couture fashions for wealthy patrons, formal training in design school and operating her own salon, Anne Cohen in Tampa, Florida, she began working on commissions in New York at some of America’s best design houses, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel and Chez Sonia.

Ann Lowe designed clothes for America’s most affluent white families and individuals— the Rockefellers, Auchinclosses, DuPonts and Vanderbilts as well as Marjorie Merriweather Post, Marisol Rothschild, and Olivia de Havilland.

She is best remembered for creating the gown worn by Jacquelyn Bouvier when she married Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1953. Ms. Bouvier requested Lowe's services because she was highly recommended by former clients and friends of Ms. Bouvier.

Lowe also designed the gowns worn by the bridal attendants.

View more dresses designed by Ann Lowe from the NMAAHC collection.

Alexander-Lane collected this dress for the Black Fashion Museum. It was made by Rosa Parks, seamstress and noted Civil Rights activist.

This was the dress Mrs. Parks was working on when she refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955. Her refusal to move led to her arrest and the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, the progenitor of the modern Civil Rights Movement in America.

View additional Civil Rights items from the NMAAHC collection.

In 1988 the Black Fashion Museum moved to Washington, DC as a mobile museum that traveled to schools, church and civic organizations. In the early 1990s Lois Alexander-Lane returned to Washington and the BFM opened in the location of her former boutique, The Needle Nook. The Museum operated under the leadership of Alexander-Lane's daughter until June, 2007, when the collection, of several thousand objects, was donated to the NMAAHC.

Lois Kindle Alexander-Lane was willing to challenge monumental odds, to inform the world of the achievements of African American seamstresses, dressmakers and designers throughout American history. She dedicated her life to making spaces for African Americans to dream, and to realize their ambitions to be part of the fashion industry.

Peter Davy, Designer

Born on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1944, Peter Davy moved to Trinidad in the early 1960s. There he developed a reputation for intricate beaded gowns for pageant queens, and elaborate costumes for carnivals in Trinidad and Tobago.

View costumes in the NMAAHC collection.

In 1985 he relocated to New York where he lived with his sister, Grace Johnson, on East 96th Street and later at 4518 Avenue K, Brooklyn. Initially he faced difficulty establishing himself as a recognized name in New York. Through Davy's persistence, his designs became popular from New York to Georgia. While in New York, he continued to design gowns for pageants.

Davy designed for individual clients, as well as fashion shows like the Harlem Institute of Fashion’s Designers Fashion Shows.

While the contours and sometimes the fabric of his designs were simple, he transformed the gowns into exceptional works of art with beads, sequins and cut-outs.

His hand-beaded gowns were donated to the Black Fashion Museum in 1993 by his sister, Grace Johnson.

Narratives on Broader Social and Cultural Themes in the 1980s and 1990s

Designers of haute couture express their ideas and thoughts more often with little regard for wearability and external expectations of what is flattering or comfortable. The ornamentation, fitted structure and padding are all intended to alter the shape or perceived shape of the body. Designers contribute to the wearer’s visual, emotional and social sense of self.

The clothes we wear help us make sense of our lives. Clothes represent an opportunity to display social status, whether actual or desired. Fashion consumption can be a substitute for identity that conveys a sense of power based on wealth, physical beauty or articulated sexuality.

Those who purchase designer fashions do so based on the expressed ideas and reputation of the designers and a belief that those fashions are a manifestation of their own personality.

The period from 1985-1990, (when Davy lived in New York) represented a mix of many fashion sensibilities, including traditional and reserved sophistication, casualness, glamour, urban street fashion, hyper-sexuality and nonconformity. It was a significant period of social, cultural and political change— an era that was a mixture of, new American conservatism that emphasized materialism and consumerism. Nationally, the yuppie (white) and buppie (black) college-educated baby boomers with highly successful jobs and expensive taste were the symbols of that decade.

View 1980s New York items in the NMAAHC collection.

Globally the wealthiest individuals continued to be major influencers of fashion. Diana, Princess of Wales, would become one of the world’s most noted icons of fashion. The wedding gown she wore for her 1981 marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales set the tone for cinched waists, and voluminous sleeves and skirts.

MTV offered a new format --music videos that allowed fans of popular music to connect with their favorite artists. Trendy fashions were made accessible to all markets through new film and television shows, including “Flashdance," “Dynasty,” and “A Different World.”

View items related to Prince in the NMAAHC collection.

The clothes and hairstyles that were worn by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Jennifer Beals, and other entertainment idols were imitated by the masses.

It was also a time in which those who were outside of the traditional, wealthy and established order began to push the boundaries of what was acceptable. These were challenges to the traditional safe and accepted attire.

View Michael Jackson's items in the NMAAHC collection.

Formal wear was worn during the daytime. And glittery, gold, silver, bronze and beaded accessories became part of the norm rather than exclusively for evening wear or special occasions.

View NMAAHC's hip-hop items from the 1980s.

The decades of the '80s' and '90s' were the era of large, padded shoulders, pouffed skirts and sleeves, big hair, army/construction boots, baggy pants, track suits, and over sized jackets.

Break dancing, DJing and graffiti art were the popular forms of entertainment for those who were outside of the status quo. And hip hop artists began marketing their own fashion labels.

Ultimately the major brands which had previously shunned urban fashion, viewing it as a potential detriment, began courting hip hop artists to promote their brands.

Computers democratized the design process. Those who lacked math skills for making patterns or drawing skills for sketching were able to contribute through computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided design and drafting (CADD) software programs. The technology also allowed designers to see their creations in a variety of colors and multi-dimensions.

Combined with the traditional modes for learning design (flat pattern construction, draping and line drawing) computers became valuable resources that enhanced the existing processes as well as time-saving tools.

More than anything, it was the era of openly expressive sexuality and gender-bending as shown by Boy George with heavy make-up and skirts. A major influence was the growth of the fitness boom. People wanted to show off their beautiful bodies. The development of stretched, tight Spandex fueled the presentation of the body beautiful as public art. Fashion designers were creating clothes that were form-fitting, while also combining country club extravagance and urban street as the new norm.

Peter Davy’s Ideas about Fashion and Feminine Beauty
Peter Davy was quoted in the Columbus Times (11/1/1988)  as saying, “I’m a dreamer.  I dream my fashions and I don't create a garment until my mind is made up."   His ideas about dressing women seemed very straightforward. He wanted to make women look beautiful and feminine. And it was his exposure to Hollywood glamour, via popular movies, magazines, and television shows that profoundly influenced his thinking about women and his visions of how they should look. 

As a young black male immigrant to America, Peter Davy faced many challenges in becoming a recognized designer of high fashion.

By the time of his death, five years after arriving in the fashion center of the world, he was respected as someone who created exceptional and elegant evening wear for women.

Peter Davy was born to create clothes. And he was so determined to do so that, by age nine, he had taught himself how to sew and assemble cut-out pieces into clothes for himself.

Even with limited resources, he resolved to make his own fashions and used whatever materials were available to him.

Growing up, Davy was very resourceful. He used discarded clothes; to produce new garments made by changing the style and ornamentation, and to generate patterns from deconstructed garments.

He also used newspapers to make patterns.

When describing the factors that influenced his style as a designer, Davy said, “I’ve always liked things worn by movie stars…glittering things.”

Peter Davy's "show-stopping" fashions usually reflected those inspirations as they were covered with beads, sequins and crystals, each of which he attached by hand.

Davy loved covering his gowns with dazzling and sparkling beads.

The originals made by Peter Davy were often one-shouldered, off-the-shoulder, and sheer designs that exposed some flesh. Even gowns that were long-sleeved accented the breasts, waists, hips, or thighs with strategic placement of beads, use of a sweetheart neckline, creation of a form-fitting but not skin-tight gown, or the use of a slit on the side or back of the dress.

In many ways, Davy was creating his own standard and not reacting to or against other styles.

And luxury was an essential element with velvet, gold, and pink lame, layers of flowing tulle, and the extravagant use of beading such that the dress appeared in the room before the person wearing it.

“…Couturier Peter Davy created such intricate and embellished gowns, comparable to those archived by designers who shared the same era... One may question why Fashion History has not given Mr. Davy his page.”

B Michael, designer, and Mark-Anthony Edwards, CEO, co-founders of b michael AMERICA, October 23, 2016.

From the 1970s to 1990, Peter Davy was a respected costume and fashion designer in the Caribbean and in America. Yet today, very little is known about him.

While in the Caribbean, Davy created fashion and carnival costumes in St. Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago. He moved to New York City to join the fashion scene and was quite successful until his death in 1990.

In 1993, Peter Davy’s sister, Grace Johnson, donated more than 50 gowns to the Black Fashion Museum. It was the largest single collection in the Black Fashion Museum. Davy was so well regarded by Lois K. Alexander Lane that she mounted three retrospective exhibitions in his honor in 1993, 1994 and 2000.

NMAAHC would like to learn more about Peter Davy. If you knew him, have photographs or recordings of him, or have any carnival costumes or images, we would like to hear from you.

Please visit our website to share with us any memories, materials or documents about Peter Davy you may have.

Follow us on social media @nmaahc and search #APeoplesJourney to find more stories from our museum.

How Did He Do It?
Information and Videos Demonstrating Techniques and Processes for Making Couture Fashion

In the 1980s the growth of the computer and technology fields intersected with the fashion industry.

Fashion designs greatly benefited from the development of the computer.

This included patterns, textile weaving configurations, sizing designs and as well as the drafting of sketches.

"Tambour Beading of Couture Fashions," by Dr. Robert Haven, December 16, 2009.

5:35 minutes in length

Credits: Story

Lonnie G. Bunch, Founding Director, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

Rex Ellis, Associate Director for the Office of Curatorial Affairs, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

Elaine Nichols, Senior Curator for Culture and Curator of this online Peter Davy exhibition, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

NMAAHC Black Fashion Museum/Peter Davy Online Project Team:

-Terri Anderson, Cataloger, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Office of Curatorial Affairs
-Marc Bretzfelder, New Media Producer, Smithsonian Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO)
-Noel Corbin, Research Assistant, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Office of Curatorial Affairs (contractor)
-Laura Coyle, Head of Cataloging and Digitization, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Office of Curatorial Affairs
-Amber Cuff, Research Assistant, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Office of Curatorial Affairs (contractor)
-Alex Jamison, Photographer, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Office of Curatorial Affairs
-Kathleen Kendrick, Curator, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Office of Curatorial Affairs
-Katie Knowles, Cataloger, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Office of Curatorial Affairs
-Adam Martin, Chief Digital Officer, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Information Technology
-Marya McQuirter, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Information Technology (contractor)
-Kathleen McSweeney, IT Project Manager, Smithsonian Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO)
-Adam Rasmussen, Webmaster, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Information Technology (contractor)
-Doug Remley, Editorial Assistant/Publications Coordinator, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Office of Curatorial Affairs

Joyce Bailey, daughter of Lois K. Alexander-Lane

Anthony Barboza, photographer

Carol Gertjegerdes, Columbia Times Newspaper

O. Houston, “Exoticism and Fashion Photography: An Essay,” The Lure of the East, (blog), May 10, 2009, citing Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, http://fashionorientalism.blogspot.com/2009/05/exoticism-and-fashion-photography-essay_10.html

Norma Ifill, sister of Peter Davy

Grace Johnson, sister of Peter Davy

Susan McNeill, and the estate of photographer Robert H. McNeill

Abbe Diaz, “How Does Fashion Affect Our Lives and Our Society?” Quora (blog), quoting Blair Waldorf, written, April 28, 2015, https://www.quora.com/How-does-fashion-affect-our-lives-and-our-society

B Michael, designer, and Mark-Anthony Edwards, CEO, co-founders of b michael AMERICA

Vonda K. Willoughby, model who wore the black gown with the hand covered in black & red sequins

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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