A toast to Harlem

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2008 - 3:32 PM

The result may have been $100,000 in funds raised, but the evening was all about the clothes.

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Joanna Barnett (left) and Toni Venegar both wore era-appropriate dropped-waist gowns.

The Links Inc., a network of black women dedicated to moving people forward, spent a recent night looking back -- to the Harlem Renaissance. The local chapter of the volunteer service group holds a biennial charity gala, and this year the Hyatt Regency's Grand Ballroom was decked out with images of Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes while a jazz band played "Stompin' at the Savoy."

Gloria C. Lewis, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities, went so far as to auction off a private, home-cooked dinner of waffles, fried chicken, cheese grits, collard greens and peach cobbler -- a feast inspired by Small's Paradise, a legendary Harlem destination. The meal sold for $3,700. In all, the event raised more than $60,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters and $40,000 for the Links.

Still, the best thing about this party was the clothes: We noticed one camera-shy woman channeling Billie Holiday by way of plunging décolletage and a bright, red flower tucked behind her ear. Cynthia Fraction graciously posed in a shiny, painstakingly embroidered dress with a vast, off-the-shoulder shawl collar. It was purchased, appropriately, at the Harlem Market.

We also admired the tastefully bold accessories worn by the Links' financial secretary, Cheryl Medlock Anderson, with the beaded gown she picked up recently in Mobile, Ala.

Of course, the place was crawling with flappers. But grandmotherly Joanna Barnett showed the most pluck in the silver drop-waisted dress that she had stitched for a long-ago cotillion. As for the outfit's finishing touches, an over-the-top boa and enormous feather clip for her hair -- did she make those, too? "Oh, no," she said. "I bought the rest at a costume shop."

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis writer.

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