Zelda Wynn Valdes: Silent Champion of Body Positivity
The Playboy Bunny’s silk, articulate and well-fitting leotard can be imagined in an instant when
mentioned; it has become a symbol for seduction and sensuality all on its own. Almost
everyone knows this look, but few probably know where the sleek style came from. Zelda Wynn
Valdes was responsible for this leotard; specifically commissioned by Hugh Heffner as well as
many other iconic designs that simply scream sex appeal and female empowerment.
Valdes was born in Pennsylvania, and she took up sewing from watching her grandmother’s
seamstress at work. Her first foray into designing was making a dress for her grandmother; with
no experience, but, in actuality, she managed to create a dress that fitted perfectly. In the 30s,
Valdes was a shop girl at a fancy boutique, where she eventually became the first Black tailor
and manager. Here, she got the experience and drive to open up her own boutique, Chez
Zelda; the first Black-owned store on Broadway in New York’s bustling Manhattan. Very early
on, Valdes was a champion for Black women; she wanted to see herself in the world of fashion,
that is for sure.
Unlike the trend of the time when Valdes was gaining traction and notoriety for her work, her
creations featured figure-hugging, low-cut, fancy and sensual pieces made to hug the curves of
her customers. Her dresses became the uniforms for famed singers such as Josephine Baker,
Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and
specifically, Joyce Bryant, who became synonymous with the cabaret dress Valdes designed for
her, earning her the name “the Black Marilyn Monroe.”
On top of making herself known stateside, Valdez was working at the same time and pace as
the huge movement of fashion in Paris, so the fact alone that Valdes was able to create a
signature style in the face of a larger fashion movement remains astonishing. The truth of the
matter is, though, that Valdes was and remains relevant because she did her own thing through
maintaining and celebrating the elegance and sophistication of the curves of a woman. She
exuded femininity in a world that wanted to diminish it.
Valdes’ goal of making women of all shapes and sizes feel elegant and confident and beautiful
appealed to Hugh Heffner, which is why her designs aligned so perfectly with the Playboy
Bunny aesthetic. She was able to put her heart and soul into each piece, not leaving a single
detail out and always taking her pieces to the next level; ultimately creating the concept of the
freakum dress. She began her successful foray into costume designing; specifically for
classical singer Marian Anderson’s concert recitals and actress Constance Bennett’s
presentation to Queen Elizabeth. She even worked alongside Arthur Mitchell, the first Black
principal dancer in the New York City Ballet, who approached her to design costumes for the
Dance Theater of Harlem, for which she modernized the typical black leotard, pink tights, typical
ballerina look: each of the dancers had tights dyed to match their skin tone; a commentary on
the inclusivity and diversity of the Dance Theater of Harlem, and lack thereof in many other
Ultimately, Valdes was opening the door for other Black female designers and seamstresses.
She wanted to make sure this door remained open, as she was aware of the discriminiation
shem and many other women faced in a bit of a misogynistic and male-driven industry. In
keeping the road that she paved clear, Valdes headed the National Association of Fashion and
Accessory Designers, whose sole purpose was to promote Black designers. Valdes wanted to
use her talent and voice to give others like her an opportunity that may not be as readily
available through this association.
Despite her influence in pop culture and music, Valdes often goes unknown or shrouded.
However without her somewhat silent influence, the celebration of women, and their bodies and
natural curves and the narrative surrounding this celebration in fashion, music, and let’s face it,
every day talk may not be as prevalent as we see it now. Valdes’ was a silent champion of
women and body positivity, and her influence is everywhere; we just have to look a little harder. By: Emily Goldberg