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Supremely Stylish

The gorgeous clothes they wore on stage – exhibited at the African American Museum – show the hit-making trio were at the top of the fashion charts, too.

The Supremes didn´t set out to be fashionistas, says Mary Wilson. "We just enjoyed wearing beautiful clothes."
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
The Supremes didn’t set out to be fashionistas, says Mary Wilson. “We just enjoyed wearing beautiful clothes.”
By Elizabeth Wellington, Fashion Columnist, from philly.com

Posted: Sunday, February 3, 2013, 3:01 AM

The Supremes’ glamorous style – lush eyelashes, sleek beehive hairdos, and fur stoles – forced the world to see black women as more than mammies and maids years before the civil rights movement got fully under way.

But the accessories wouldn’t have mattered a lick without the gowns.

Original Supremes Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard performed in what seemed like an endless supply of heavily beaded, floor-length confections. Some featured plunging necklines and flowing capes. Many were pleated and most were sequined. All were beautiful.

Thirty gowns from the glorious collection are on display at the African American Museum through June as part of “Come See About Me: The Mary Wilson Supremes Collection.”

Although the look of the 1960s girl group was as popular as some of their record-breaking 12 No. 1 hits – “You Can’t Hurry Love” or “Stop in the Name of Love,” to name just two – the three young women from Detroit never set out to be fashion icons. Singing was their first love.

“We just enjoyed wearing beautiful clothes,” Wilson said in an interview. The 68-year-old singer with the perfectly flipped bob was in town recently for a series of cocktail receptions and speaking engagements toasting the 40-plus-year collection of heart-stopping, history-making gowns.

Wearing an of-the-moment black peplum top and pencil skirt, Wilson was all smiles in the sea of sequined technicolor for an interview on a recent Friday. Chatty and busy, she’s making sure the lighting is just right to show off the lines of a black halter gown, one of the first pieces the Supremes performed in.

And she’s fiddling with the train on a chartreuse and gold beaded gown by Michael Travis, the famed costume designer who worked with Edith Head at NBC Studios through the 1960s; he made many a Supremes stage ensemble.

“We just loved looking good and at the time we were paying tribute to the beautiful black women who came before us, like Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, and Carmen McCrae,” Wilson said.

“All the ladies we knew were glamour girls. They were sharp.”

Wilson, who was in the group the longest of the nine singers who would be Supremes, held onto the dresses because, as she so succinctly puts it, “the gowns belonged to the group.”

She kept them in a storage facility in Las Vegas, where she lives now, until the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame asked about them and opened a Supremes exhibit in 2004.

But Wilson wanted more people to be able to see the dress collection. In 2010, she hired Kansas City-based Blair-Murrah exhibitions, which helped her repair many of the gowns and expand the collection. The African American Museum will showcase 30 of the collection’s 74 gowns in “Come See About Me.”

But the company’s most significant upgrade was procuring ebony mannequins. In the world of fashion installations, that’s no easy feat.

“Mary really wanted the mannequins to be lifelike, so we worked with her daughter to come up with the right shade of brown,” said Elizabeth Morrow, executive director of Blair-Murrah. “And we spray-painted them with a sheen.”

The mannequins of the singers, who started performing as adolescents, also had to be small, a size 2 to 6 by today’s standards.

Walking up the ramp to the second floor, visitors see black and white images that tell the story of the Great Migration – blacks leaving the South and its oppressive laws for more opportunities up North, in cities like Detroit and Philadelphia.

There are also photographs of black performers on the segregated Chitlin’ Circuit and pictures from the early civil rights movement. The historical aspect of the exhibit, curated by Mark Anthony Neal, a pop-culture professor in Duke University’s Department of African and African American Studies, is important because it lays the groundwork for the formation of Motown and the success of the Supremes, said Patricia Aden Smith, interim director and CEO of the African American Museum.

“The Supremes were in this cauldron of change. They were among the first acts to peform in whites-only venues. These dresses were a part of history.”

Just as the Supremes themselves were woven into daily black life.

Mothers and grandmothers sang “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Love Child” as they did mundane chores, like pressing their children’s hair or cooking.

Covers of the Supremes on Ebony were standard coffee-table decor.Women talked about Diana, Mary, and Florence like they were their girlfriends.

And the conversations always ended with clothes. Those girls could dress.

“We didn’t mean to, but we set the standards for beautiful black women,” Wilson said.

“We were just emulating our aunts and our mothers who stayed dressed to the nines for church and nightclubs. . . . There was a time when it was humiliating to be an African American woman. We were treated like trash.”

Which makes the glamorous exhibit – which includes a red, black, and white set of feathered gowns by Geoffrey Holder, sunshine yellow trenchcoat suits, and Purple Fantasy jumpsuits with feather wraps – even more remarkable.

Smith said it cost more than $100,000 to bring “Come See About Me” to Philadelphia.

“We knew if we invested in this exhibit it would touch Philadelphians,” she said, “because this is our history.”

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