Black history on the runway

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2012 - 2:20 PM

A reunion of local black fashion pioneers aims to pay homage, instill pride and provide an opportunity to dress up like you mean it.

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Rosa Bogar is organizing a reunion of people involved in the extravagant black fashion shows of the 1970s and ’80s, a breakthrough time for her as a designer.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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As a teenager in a God-fearing South Carolina household, Rosa Bogar knew it was sinful to sew on Sundays, "because it would be like sticking a needle in Jesus' heart," she said, then leaned closer and added: "So I had to ask for forgiveness a lot. I'd say, 'Jesus, I don't mean to make your heart bleed, but I have to finish this outfit so I can sell it and get some money.'"

She kept designing and sewing her own clothes, even after moving to Minneapolis and pursuing a career in education. Then in late 1981, KMOJ radio put out a call for black designers for an upcoming fashion show. Bogar thought: "I'm black. I design my clothes. Why not give it a shot?"

Long story short: She was named the top designer in the Shades of Blackness fashion show, which jump-started her career, which led to bigger fashion shows, which eventually brought black and white communities into the same room, which now is culminating in a reunion of those pioneers of black fashion on Sunday night.

Models, designers, photographers and all who appreciated great style in the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s are invited to attend the reunion at the Capri Theater in Minneapolis. Donations are appreciated, but Bogar said there is no charge "because you can't put a price on history."

The reunion will recall a time in Minneapolis, and the nation, when black and white communities were trying to find their way toward each other. For some, fashion proved a bridge.

The black fashion shows "became a cultural phenomenon," said Rozenia Hood Fuller, a participant in those early shows who became one of the first black models to walk the runway at Dayton's Oval Room shows.

"They exposed designers of color and provided networking opportunities for models getting their start," Fuller said. The shows were grass-roots efforts, not necessarily because black models and designers often were excluded from established fashion shows, "although that factor must be included in any conversation," she said. "It was in response to the inequity that we got to do something that would give us a place and a stage, give people a way to build their résumés."

She added that the shows, many of which were fundraisers for churches, schools and community efforts, also performed a subtler function: building self-esteem among young men and women by celebrating an alternative to the standards of beauty that, for much of America at that time, were defined as white.

Segregation, and celebration

The fashions could be spectacular, clothes that you wouldn't find on the racks of downtown department stores.

"You know the saying, 'I'm black and I'm proud.' The clothes showed that," Bogar said, adding that the audience at times might be better dressed than the models. These were family events, with 500 or 600 people from all generations. No one got paid for their services "and you never thought twice about it."

Charles Caldwell was one of the rare -- or as he prefers to say, "appreciated" -- male models. "They were awesome social gatherings, very family-oriented," said Caldwell, who now owns CCaldwell Fine Arts Gallery and Studio in Minneapolis. "My whole creative being came out of those fashion days. The reunion is an homage to those who laid the groundwork for the future."

Bogar's life epitomizes that groundwork. Now 72, she recalled picking cotton as a child in South Carolina, "a miserable job that I could never do well, though I tried," she said. "I might have only picked 75 pounds [a day] when my brother could pick 300 or 400 pounds, but my mama knew I wasn't fooling around."

Well, maybe a little bit. Bogar was always spinning dreams alongside her sister when they found they could make the time go faster by imagining the clothes they wanted to design, and what they would wear if they ever visited New York City.

"I never bought cloth off a bolt," she said, relying on remnants sold in the basement of the local F.W. Woolworth. "I just wanted to go into a store and say, 'I'll have three yards of that.'"

Woolworth's in those days was a segregated store, "and while you could buy a thousand dollars' worth of fabric downstairs, you couldn't spend 25 cents for an ice cream cone upstairs," Bogar said.

So it was a sweet twist of history when Darwin Moulton, manager of the Minneapolis Woolworth's store in 1982, offered Bogar the chance to display her designs in two windows, by virtue of her being named the top designer in that 1981 Shades of Blackness fashion show.

Promotional materials for Sunday's reunion feature the sankofa bird, an important image in African-American culture that symbolizes the importance of "going back and being reminded where you came from," Bogar said. "We have some stories to tell."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

  • BLACK FASHION SHOW REUNION

    When: 6-8 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Capri Theater, 2027 W. Broadway, Minneapolis.

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