A new exhibit at the Valentine museum explores more than a century of women’s fashion in Virginia. Behind the unique dresses, hats and accessories that shaped local and national trends, is a story of women who fought for equality, launched businesses and advanced women’s rights. WCVE’s Phil Lyles has more for Virginia Currents.
Ora Lomax got her first job in fashion in the 1950s, at a black-owned boutique in Richmond. The owner, Mrs.James took Lomax under her wing.
Ora Lomax: She said well I want to train you. So she went to work on me and we talked about fashions and materials and colors, you know, and then she said if you're going into fashions, you got to know about colors too and what's going to look good on you and somebody else and all of that.
Growing up in North Carolina, Lomax promised her father she’d fight segregation and racism. She did that by integrating Richmond’s department stores. Lomax was the first African American woman to be hired for sales positions at Raylass, then Lerner’s Shop.
Lomax: After I did so well, they decided to hire some other blacks and they hired two young ladies on the first floor as a cashier.
Lomax wanted to go higher. She applied at Miller and Rhoads, where she worked in nearly every department. She faced daily racism, including women who called her the n-word.
Lomax: Oh, it was always some kind of name. You know, I took it. Okay. All right. That's the way you feel. I did not allow them to break me. I broke them.
Lomax is featured in the Valentine’s exhibit “Pretty Powerful: Fashion and Virginia Women.”
Kristen Stewart: Women have managed nevertheless in the face of great challenge to make great strides.
Stewart: And the fashion industry seemed during these moments to be putting its weight behind women's movements, providing leadership positions within the fashion industry and providing a wardrobe that to ok working women's needs into consideration.
The exhibit features women designers from the end of the 19th Century to today. There’s a wool two-part dress by Fanny Criss, a Black designer who opened a business in Richmond that catered to wealthy white women. Popular milliner Sara Sue Waldbauer crafted unique and brightly colored hats at Miller & Rhoads for four decades.
Stewart: And her label, her name “Designed for you, by Sarah Sue” was a coveted label.
Another coveted item made in Richmond was a handbag. In the late ‘60s, model Dee Hyers began making a variation of a purse she saw in Bermuda. She got a store to carry the first 24 “Bermuda Bags” she made at home. The rounded fabric purses buttoned to a wooden handle.
Dee Hyers: And the next day they called and said we've sold them all and we would like to double the order and can you bring them tomorrow?
At first Hyers organized a cottage industry, moms and high school girls helping make the bags. Eventually, she moved into a 35,000 square foot factory, opened offices across the country and continued to build her business.
Hyers company de’Lanthe Creations also made apparel and designed fabric. Exhibit curator Kristen Stewart hopes the varied experiences of Virginia women included in the exhibit will be a spark for female fashion entrepreneurs today.
Stewart: As evidenced in the Valentine's collection of costume and textiles, in Richmond there certainly was a large ready willing and excited enthusiastic audience for these clothes, for clothes made by women for women.
The Valentine’s exhibit “Pretty Powerful: Fashion and Virginia Women” runs through January 27, 2019. For Virginia Currents, I’m Phil Liles, WCVE News.