The National African American Museum: Inside look at fashion icon

Lois Alexander Lane, Founder of The Black Fashion Museum

As events kick off the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), perhaps the most anticipated museum opening for the nation’s capital, the turn-out has been astounding. Thousands are expected to attend the opening weekend where President Barack Obama will lead the museum’s dedication ceremony. Those who have not already retrieved their free tickets will have to wait until the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The museum’s collections and exhibits depict slavery starting from 1400 on the basement level and follows a timeline of contributions made by African Americans to the present day, which ends on the top floor of the museum.

One specific collection that has received attention is from the family of late Lois Alexander Lane of the Black Fashion Museum (BFM). Lane founded BFM in New York City in 1979 with a $20K grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1979, it was unheard of for a person of color to start a museum, but she was determined. Her objective was to dispel the myth that Black people were newfound talent in the fashion industry, so she dedicated her life to telling the world about the centuries of contributions women and men of the African Diaspora have made to the industries of fashion and design.

In 1988, Joyce Alexander Bailey, Lane’s daughter, opened the Black Fashion Museum in Washington, DC, as a mobile mini-museum taking exhibits to schools, churches and civic organizations. Many iconic pieces that Lane collected for BFM are displayed throughout NMAAHC. Bailey was generous to donate her mother’s full museum collection of over 3K pieces to NMAAHC after her mother’s passing from Alzheimer’s Disease in 2007.

When asked if Bailey felt emotional about letting go of her mother’s artifacts, she explained that she was “very happy about letting it go because I knew my mother’s legacy would continue … I believe the best place for the BFM Collection to be cared for in the manner in which it deserves is the Nation Museum of African American History and Culture …”

BFM housed costumes and dresses sewn and worn by slaves, celebrities and civil rights icons. Some fashion items and memorabilia date back to the 1850s. Among the treasures are authentic slave dresses, a replica of a gown worn by Mary Todd Lincoln designed by Elizabeth Keckley (a former slave and dressmaker), creations by Anne Lowe who designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s bridal gown for her wedding to John F. Kennedy, vibrant dresses from the play “For Colored Girls” and costumes from Broadway musicals including “Grind”, “Eubie”, Bubbling Brown Sugar,” and “The Wiz.”

Rosa Parks, also known as the “first lady of Civil Rights,” was indeed a seamstress and respected friend of Lane. The dress that Parks made the day of her infamous refusal to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama was included in Lane’s collection, which NMAAHC now has on display.

Prior to founding the Black Fashion Museum, Lane’s resume already exceeded itself. Under the mentorship of Mary McLeod Bethune, Lane came to Washington, DC in 1942 and began a career in the federal government. She later became a reporter and photographer, which gave her the opportunity to meet important people, including several presidents. She established two custom wear boutiques — one in Washington, DC (The Needle Nook, 1945-1955) and one in New York City (Lois K. Alexander & Co. in 1964-1969). In 1966, Lane founded the Harlem Institute of Fashion, an educational institute that offered free courses to students interested in dressmaking, millinery and tailoring. That same year, she founded the National Association of Milliners, Dressmakers and Tailors. By 1982, Lane became the author and publisher of Blacks in the History of Fashion“, the first book of its kind.

Accolades include the Ida B. Wells Media Woman of the Year (1980), Dollars & Sense, 1 of 100 top Business & Professional Women in US (1985), NY Urban League, Frederick Douglass Award (1988), NAACP, NY Chapter, Crusader’s Award (1993), and high honor 1992 Josephine Shaw Lowell Community Service Award, given for her involvement in helping with the crisis facing the unemployment of the youth because she was always concerned with the education and employment of young adults.

While viewing her mother’s collection during the museum’s donor reception a week before the grand opening, Bailey expressed how delighted and pleased her mother would’ve been if she were still alive to see her collection displayed in the new museum. She hopes to see more exhibits and collections when she revisits in October.

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