MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Reintroducing Ruby Bailey!

In 2004 the Museum of the City of New York  acquired a collection of clothing and fashion mannequins from the estate of Harlem resident Ruby Hyacinth Bailey. Her work, alongside Ann Lowe’s, represents highlights of 20th century African American design. The better-known Lowe designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress for her marriage to John Kennedy.

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ruby Bailey

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ruby Bailey

The Museum’s Curator of Costumes and Textiles Phyllis Magidson described Bailey’s apartment as ornate and filled to the brim with fabric. This makes perfect sense when you view her fashion designs: they are artisanal in a folk craft way; bold in pattern, texture, and surface embellishment. Several cocktail and evening dresses in the Museum’s collection have intricate beading, whereas her sportswear has bold graphic beading often dictated by the pattern on the fabric. She utilized border prints
, textural fabrics like hemp, straw, and raffia, and full size plastic fruit, seashells, and beads in her designs. The concept of “less is more” did not factor into Bailey’s work.

Detail Ruby Bailey Afrocentric Jacket 2004.41.8

Detail Ruby Bailey Afrocentric Jacket 2004.41.8

Detail Ruby Bailey Afrocentric Ensemble 2004.41.9

Detail Ruby Bailey Afrocentric Ensemble 2004.41.9

Detail Ruby Bailey “Rose” Dress 2004.41.2

Detail Ruby Bailey “Rose” Dress 2004.41.2

Details Ruby Bailey “Rose” Dress 2004.41.2

Details Ruby Bailey “Rose” Dress 2004.41.2

The City Museum featured two of Bailey’s dresses in recent exhibitions. The “Bug” dress, for which she allegedly won an award at the Savoy Ballroom, in Glamour, New York Style in 2005 and a dashiki style dress in Black Style Now in 2006. Inclusion in these two distinctly different exhibitions speaks to the range of Bailey’s talent. Bailey reportedly often expressed sentiments such as, “I love my color! I love my race!”  She was aware that her work did not receive the recognition it deserved because of the color of her skin.

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ruby Bailey

Bug dress. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ruby Bailey

Detail Ruby Bailey “Bug” Dress 2004.41.4

Detail Ruby Bailey “Bug” Dress 2004.41.4

Ruby Bailey was born in Bermuda in 1905 and arrived in the US in 1912 with her mother and sister. She lived in Harlem until her death in 2003 at the age of 97. Growing up during the Harlem Renaissance, Bailey embraced both visual and performing arts, participating in fashion shows, art exhibitions, and theatrical productions at locales including St. Phillips Episcopal Church, the Savoy Ballroom, and Small’s Paradise. She was well known for her portraiture and illustrations. W.C. Handy, often called the father of the blues, commented on her portrait of Richard B. Harrison, the actor who portrayed ‘de Lawd’ in the Broadway play Green Pastures, in the New York Age on June 8, 1940, “[I]f I had a million dollars, I would gladly make you recipient of it in exchange for the picture.” The August 16, 1941 New York Amsterdam-Star News cited Bailey’s presentation of 19 original costume designs at the Alma Reed Galleries on 57th Street, noting she was the only “Negro” artist.

Bailey had the flamboyantly expressive personality often associated with New York generally and Harlem in particular. She was a member of many social and art clubs and a regular on the Harlem social scene, which necessitated an extensive wardrobe. Perhaps this fostered her fashion design career, since African Americans were not permitted access to mainstream clothing and other retail establishments at that time. Although Bailey’s work has not been documented outside of New York, the African American press, including the Amsterdam News and the New York Age, covered her extensively, publishing photographs of her wearing daring creations unusual in other parts of the country, but quite appropriate for the New York fashion scene. One such creation was a zebra printed “African” influenced jacket, featured in the New York Amsterdam News in 1949.

Included in the City Museum’s acquisition were 29 “Manikins” (mannequins). They are Barbie sized figures made with cotton fiber and glue. The detail of workmanship in the facial expressions, delicate fingers, poses, settings, and clothing designs rival the mannequins in the Theatre de la Mode produced by French designers after World War II. Bailey’s figures are dressed in beaded gowns, leather suits, fur coats, and African and Native American clothing. Their hairstyles include Afros, cornrows, and short blond bobs, appropriate to each character and clothing. Snake skin boots, sandals, gloves, and jewelry complement the clothing.

Ruby Bailey Doll: Wedding Gown 2004.41.28

Ruby Bailey Doll: Wedding Gown 2004.41.28

Ruby Bailey Doll: Turquoise Patterned Harem Pant with Matching Top 2004.41.29

Ruby Bailey Doll: Turquoise Patterned Harem Pant with Matching Top
2004.41.29

Ruby Bailey Fashion Doll: Striptease 2004.41.43

Ruby Bailey Fashion Doll: Striptease 2004.41.43

Ruby Bailey Fashion Doll: “There’s a Man on the Moon” 2004.41.44

Ruby Bailey Fashion Doll: “There’s a Man on the Moon” 2004.41.44

There are two Pearl Bailey (no relation) mannequins depicting Dolly Levi in her Broadway performance in Hello Dolly.

Ruby Bailey Fashion Doll: Hello Dolly Sailor Ensemble 2004.41.42

Ruby Bailey Fashion Doll: Hello Dolly Sailor Ensemble 2004.41.42

Ruby Bailey Doll: Hello Dolly/Pearl Bailey 2004.41.26

Ruby Bailey Doll: Hello Dolly/Pearl Bailey 2004.41.26

unknown photographer, [Pearl Bailey as Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi in "Hello, Dolly!"], ca. 1967. Museum of the City of New York. 82.12.9

unknown photographer, [Pearl Bailey as Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!”], ca. 1967. Museum of the City of New York. 82.12.9

Another mannequin replicates a beaded dress Ruby Bailey created for herself. Documentation accompanying her collection suggests that Ruby Bailey was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as a master beader. According to a New York Amsterdam-Star News article, April 9, 1949, Hollywood costume designer Adrian saw her designs at the St. Regis hotel and selected some to be adapted for his designs.

Left- Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ruby Bailey

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Estate of Ruby Bailey

Ruby Bailey Fashion Doll: Floral Ball Gown 2004.41.39

Ruby Bailey Fashion Doll: Floral Ball Gown 2004.41.39

Unlike Adrian of Hollywood, Ruby Bailey and Ann Lowe have never received proper recognition for their work. The New York Times described Ann Lowe’s wedding dress for Ms. Bouvier in detail but did not mention the designer’s name. The Washington Post described her as “the Negro, Ann Lowe.” Although acknowledgement by the fashion industry was elusive, the talents of designers like Bailey and Lowe were not ignored. In 1949 civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune invited Ms. Bailey to attend a conference in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women. Mainstream fashion industry professionals including designer Mollie Parnis, Vogue managing editor Esther Lyman, and milliner Sally Victor addressed the conference. Later that year the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD) was established to help promote and integrate “Negro” designers into mainstream fashion.

“Fashion’s Racial Divide,” a New York Times article published on February 11, 2015, cited many of the same issues for present day African American designers that Bailey faced 56 years ago. Hopefully the talented and dedicated work of designers of African descent will begin to receive the recognition it deserves.

Little is known about Bailey’s life. If you have any information about Ruby Bailey that you would like to share, email us at collections@mcny.org

About Precious D. Lovell

I am an Educator, Artist+Designer+Maker. My research interests include Seamstresses, Dressmakers, Tailors and Fashion Designers of the African Diaspora.

20 comments on “Reintroducing Ruby Bailey!

  1. Ashaki H. Taha-Cisse
    January 5, 2016

    Thank you for this long overdue introduction to the extraordinary talent of Ruby Bailey, an innovative fashion designer of the African Diaspora whose brilliance was disregarded for that very reason. The post’s author captured both the elegance and flamboyance of Ms. Bailey’s designs, as well as the racism that directly resulted in her obscurity. Thank you, Precious D. Lovell for excavating and illuminating Ruby Bailey’s important contribution to fashion, as well as the legacy she leaves for future designers of the African Diaspora.

  2. Gerard Yosca
    January 5, 2016

    Thank you for this enlightening post! I hope we get to see some of Miss Bailey’s work in the flesh. How lucky are we that it is preserved?

  3. Leesa Kellam
    January 5, 2016

    Precious … I had no idea. This is so important. Great fashion. It makes me think twice about Jackie Kennedy O too. Thanks for bringing this story to the forefront

  4. paul petrie
    January 5, 2016

    The enrichment of fabric and bold colorful pattern with beading adds a wonderful liveliness to her garments. She is a real talent most deserving of recognition for her contributions to fashion design of her era.

  5. Gary B.
    January 5, 2016

    Fascinating! Precious, thanks for introducing us to Ms. Bailey’s incredible talent.

  6. Carollee
    January 6, 2016

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I really enjoyed learning about Ruby’s stunning work. The intricate details and craftsmanship are truly amazing.

  7. Gen
    January 6, 2016

    Thank you for this! Ms. Bailey’s imagination, wit, and beading are inspiring. I would love to know and see more. Is an exhibit possible?

  8. Genny K
    January 6, 2016

    Thank you. Ms. Bailey’s imagination, wit and craftsmanship are inspiring. I’d love to know and see more. Is an exhibit possible?

  9. Jemma
    January 6, 2016

    What an eye opening post! I learned a lot!

  10. g d
    January 6, 2016

    It is so good to learn about Ms. Ruby Bailey and her work.
    I am particularly excited to see such detail from NYC while at a distance working in Detroit, and to soon share with students in Atlanta this spring.
    Thank you for documenting these historic treasures online, and demonstrating the contemporary relevance with the NYT article.

  11. TheBadBlack
    January 6, 2016

    This is incredible! I had no idea, now I must do some of my own research!

  12. Ari
    January 7, 2016

    Sometimes it takes years after a persons death for an artist to receive proper recognition for their life’s work. Whether it was Picasso burning his earlier paintings for warmth due to poverty or Ruby Bailey being denied because of her race. It’s nice that Precious Lovell has maintained the spotlight on this wonderful artist slighted because of her skin color. Kudus for keeping her artistic brilliance, life’s passion and fashion mastery alive.

  13. Kristel
    January 7, 2016

    Her collection is serving bold awesomeness and I adore it! Her designs should have received the recognition it deserved. I’m glad this article was written and that we’re all able to give her collection the love and attention it deserves. Now, how can I get a dress inspired by her work?

  14. Wendy Jones
    January 7, 2016

    I had never heard of Ms. Bailey, or her work. How magnificent and ahead of the times her designs were! Thank you for enlightening me and sharing this important historic creator. I am inspired to learn more about her, Precious!

  15. Joy
    January 8, 2016

    With designs like the spider dress Ruby Baily should be sitting at the top of pop culture fashion designers. I was blown away about Jackie O’s wedding dress. The effervescence of her mannequins gives some insight to her amazing spirit. Thanks Precious!

  16. Dr. Anna Mudukuti
    January 12, 2016

    Thank you Ms Precious for enlightening us on who Ruby Bailey was and her marvelous, extraordinary work. Indeed she was very talented designer .

  17. susan
    January 15, 2016

    NY, a melting pot of talent not always recognized by our major museums. How wonderful to see one of my most loved institutions feature this article about a designer i had never heard of. And thank you Precious for teaching me once again.

  18. Nayla
    January 17, 2016

    Thank you Precious for introducing me to this talented designer and shedding a light on her struggle. Her story is inspiring and the post so timely.

  19. Pingback: Can’t make it to the runway? Check out Dressing Room: Archiving Fashion | MCNY Blog: New York Stories

  20. Pingback: Harlem's Ruby Bailey, A Fashion Pioneer NY 1912 - 2003 - Harlem World Magazine

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