The Playboy Bunny’s impact as a pop culture phenomenon cannot be argued, whether you view it with distaste or you believe it a symbol of sexual liberation. Though almost 70 years old, the Playboy Bunny costume continues making 21st century appearances. This includes through characters such as Regina George (Mean Girls) and anime protagonist Mai Sakurajima (Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny-girl Senpai). There remains a plethora of cultural shoutouts to the Playboy bunnies and Hugh Hefner in music, television, and writing. Every Halloween, rain or shine, an army of Playboy bunnies hits the town in a variety of tuxedo corsets, floppy bunny ears, and stilettos.
Despite the widespread popularity of the bunny suit and her unquestionable influence on the fashion industry as a whole, Zelda Wynn Valdes’s credit for her contributions leaves much to be desired.
The Playboy Bunny
In 1949, Hugh Hefner envisioned a bunny as the perfect representation for Playboy magazine. He chose a bunny “for its humorous sexual connotations” and dressed him in a tuxedo to represent sophistication and mystique. Upon Playboy Magazine’s success, Hefner anticipated opening up a string of Playboy Clubs. He wanted to fashion the “look” of the female entertainment in a similar way to his mascot. His first idea was bland and rather uninspired: lingerie. Thankfully, this idea never graduated from the drawing board. A friend of Hefner’s suggested the work of Zelda Wynn Valdes, who ran the only black-owned boutique in Manhattan.
Valdes was already a well-known designer at the time, earning a reputation that proceeded her based on her work for celebs such as Josephine Baker, Dorothy Danbridge, Mae West, Eartha Kitt, and Ella Fitzgerald. Hefner, delighted by her design-work, commissioned Valdes with the task of creating the official Playboy Bunny suit. The suit was striking and so beloved by Hefner he patented it. This makes it the first service uniform ever trademarked.
Style and Craft
Zelda Wynn Valdes’s work was already close in nature to the concept of the now popular Bunny suit. The form-fitting, extravagant gowns that filled her boutique defined her signature style. She highlighted the hourglass figure in a way that was both sexy and powerfully feminine, with low necklines and tight waists. She believed that the dress should fit the woman and not vice-versa, designing glam for women of all sizes.
It would not be an overstatement to say that her designs established the concept of a form-fitting gown. Valdes’s designs laid the groundwork for a particular style popular today: the “freakum dress,” as coined by Beyonce. This dress style is usually a short, skintight dress accentuating a woman’s natural figure.
As a young girl, Valdes learned her craft by watching her grandmother’s favorite seamstress hard at work. She gained an understanding of sewing making outfits for her dolls, before graduating to cutting life-size patterns out of newspaper. Her first design was for her grandmother, who thought herself “too tall and too big” for Zelda to be able to design for. The young girl’s determination was greater, and she set to work sewing. In the end, Valdes’s grandmother loved the gown so much she was buried in it.
As Valdes quipped in a 1994 New York Times interview: “I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful.”
But Wait, There’s More
Valdes’s career didn’t stop at her famous bunny suit. Valdes’s boutique, “Chez Zelda,” brought in many black celebrities that trusted her to help define their career’s image. Valdes shaped singer Joyce Bryant’s sex symbol status as the “black Marilyn Monroe” by designing many signature looks. Iconically, she also created Maria Ellington’s “Blue Ice” wedding dress. In 1949, she became the president of the NYC branch of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD).
In 1989, Valdes closed her business and exchanged her career in the fashion industry for one in costume-design. Next, she worked for the Dance Theater of Harlem for a total of 82 ballet productions spanning over 22 countries right up until her death in 2001 at the age of 97.
The Museum in FIT’s set up an exhibit titled “Black Fashion Designers” in 2016. This exhibit was sadly the first time many had seen Valdes’s work or heard her name in relation to the Playboy suit at all. Her impact as a visionary and true artist deserves recognition. Zelda Wynn Valdes, the first black fashion designer, is a name that should not be lost in history.