Ajita Wilson’s Jet Set Style

Image via IMDB

Viewers spending their quarantine on Netflix may come across the documentary, Disclosure, which highlights the experiences and exclusions of trans people in American media. Among the interviewees in the documentary is the movie star Laverne Cox. She discusses both her own experience in the industry and others who influenced her career. One name she mentioned was film star Ajita Wilson, an American actress who mesmerized worldwide audiences in the 1970s. 

Tall and beautiful with flawless hair and makeup, Wilson was a fashionista during her stardom. Her style blended minimalist, form-fitted clothing with layered necklaces, a tower of bangles on both wrists, and a set of thin, golden hoops dangling from her ears. According to academic Matt Richardson, Wilson’s taste mirrored what Dr. Tanisha Ford calls soul style, an aesthetic that blended fashionable expression with the 1970s Black Power movement.

Although not featured in high fashion magazines of the time, Wilson did get the chance to be Jet’s “Beauty of the Week” in 1981. Caught mid-stroll on a beach, Wilson sported beaded braids, a berry-colored bikini, and Roman-inspired jewelry. She may have been the first Transgender woman to be given the honor.
 
Not much is known about Wilson’s early life, except that she was born in Brooklyn on May 26, 1950. Her film career began in the 1970s in New York City. Once she crossed the pond, Wilson acted for some of the top directors in Europe in softcore and hardcore films. In 1987, a car wreck ended her life at the young age of 37.

To see Ajita Wilson’s Jet feature, check out the August 20, 1981 edition on Google Books. To learn more about her contribution to film, read Matt Richardson’s “Ajita Wilson: Blaxploitation, Sexploitation, and the Making of Black Womanhood.”

Ruth West, The Woman Who Transformed Pam Grier Into Foxy Brown

Ruth West was the premier designer for some of the top performers of the 1970s. Famous names like the Ann-Margret and the Jackson family would step in and out of her Hollywood storefront to be fitted in eye-catching looks for on and off the stage. 

West built this reputation by crafting wares that were not only stylish but functional. “… When you get something tailored … and the sleeves start coming off onstage- well. Ruthie’s stuff always stays together,” commented Billy Griffin to Ebony Magazine in 1977.  Aside from clothing performers in glittering garbs, she also designed the iconic looks for Pam Grier in the 1974 film, Foxy Brown.

West learned how to craft her first stitch by quilting with her grandmother as a child. As she grew into a young woman, she built her eye for design in a still-life class at Washington University in St. Louis. This combination of form and handiwork led to West finding sewing work for a local designer. There, she created multiple best-selling looks for the brand. 

Although West’s talent was a financial benefit for the designer, her boss encouraged her to venture out to California and create a name of her own. She took the advice and left for the Golden State. As in St. Louis, the California-based West found herself crafting designs under a designer’s name. She knew her worth, so she quit her job and established herself as an independent designer. This meant taking a deep pay cut and building clientele from scratch. 

Amid this career change, West bought a charity raffle ticket with her last $15. That philanthropic spending proved to be a fruitful purchase. She had the winning ticket, a trip to Hawaii. A friend bought the trip from West and she used that money to make a down payment for a storefront that would become the International Costume Company. Within her first year, she made $41,000 and started her path in becoming a designer to the stars.  

To see the original photographs and profile of Ruth West, check out the May 1977 edition of Ebony Magazine.   

Yva, A Pioneer of the Fashion Nude

Self-Portrait

Before Helmut Newton was snapping his signature erotica, he was once an assistant to German fashion photographer Yva (1900-1942).

The uniquely named photographer was born Else Neulander in Berlin to a working-class Jewish family. Twenty-five years later she became Yva and opened a photography studio in the fashionable Kurfürstendamm district. Through a modernist perspective, she captured surrealist compositions of stylish women and artistic nudes. Yva’s work was so eye-catching that Berlin’s fashion elite sought out her photographs for their publications and advertisements.

Dancer Tatjana Barbakoff, 1929
Yva

Yva’s career ended after the political rise of the Nazis. In 1942, she and her husband were arrested and sent to a death camp. A set of stolperstein (stepping stone) have been placed in front of their former home at Schlüterstraße #45 to honor the couple’s legacy.

For more on Yva, check out Yva: Photographies 1925-1938 by Elisabeth Moortgat and Marion Beckers or Fashioning Jews: Clothing, Culture, and Commerce by Leonard J. Greenspoon.

Dorothy Donegan’s Sequined Statements

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Dorothy Donegan (1922-1998) was an American pianist and singer who specialized in jazz, blues, and classical music. She is best known for her animated performances on the stride piano and owning Club Morocco in Los Angeles.

Just like her lively piano playing, Donegan’s on-stage attire was attention-grabbing. She wore curve-hugging, intricately decorated gowns that mirrored the fashions worn by Hollywood starlets. She didn’t skimp on her beauty routine either. Her hair was styled in curly or voluminous bobs that were often accented with a flower or turban.

Born in Chicago, Donegan performed in jazz clubs at a young age. During these shows, she developed her stage attire. “My mother would get me a pretty good dress, you know. Then, you could get a whole outfit for $15,” the singer said to Jeannie Cheatham for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program. “The shoes were $2 or $3. We’d go to Rothschild’s. I didn’t know a thing about Neiman Marcus, ‘needless markups.” 

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In 1945 Donegan received a call from Hollywood. “They (MGM)  paid our way there and gave me I think $3000 a week … Gene Rodgers and I played against each other. He was a very good pianist. Cab (Calloway) was directing and shaking his hair.” 

An example of her style is seen in a 1944 performance with Calloway and his band in the musical comedy film, “Sensations of 1945.” Donegan wears a long-sleeved gown with a deep V-neck and slightly squared shoulders. The white coloring of the dress is contrasted by gold sequins dotted at the neckline and in spirals around her wrists, which accentuates her piano playing.

Despite being a famous musician, Donegan often challenged sexism in the male-dominated jazz industry. “There shouldn’t be a separate role for women and a separate role for men. They either can perform or they can’t.”

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Although this may have shaped public opinion of her as difficult or overbearing, the musician knew her talents and worth. Her persistence was mentioned in a February 9, 1961 edition of Jet. The passage reads, “Jazz pianist Dorothy Donegan and her retort to the New York Roundtable Club owner after he suggested ordering some elevated shoes for her to compensate for the high ceiling Dorothy complained about: “How about some elevated money?”

As she entered her later years, Donegan combined her signature razzle-dazzle with streetwear. When she performed at the White House in 1993, she wore “a silver coat and a Chanel copy baseball hat,” and “a bugle beaded jet top and a black sequined skirt” with a bangle bracelet around her left wrist.

When not performing in the 1990s, Donegan received a National Endowment of the Arts “American Jazz Masters” fellowship (1992) and an honorary doctorate from Roosevelt University (1994). In 1997 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away at the age of 76 in 1998.

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Throughout her career, Donegan faced hardships for being an opinionated woman in a male-dominated industry. Instead of giving up, she continued to shine with the help of some sparkle.  

The Glamorous Style of Candy Darling

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Candy Darling was a Warhol Superstar who led a life of parties, men, and disappointments, but the one constant in her life was style. Even on her deathbed, Darling stayed true to who she was, a Hollywood glamour puss.

Born in Long Island in 1944, Darling spent her childhood idolizing Hollywood. In this world, she learned about glamour, which exuded from the fabulous women on her screen. From then and there, she wanted to become a famous actress.

Darling’s love for cinema may have also been a form of escapism from her less than charming childhood. Darling was an only child of divorced parents who was often bullied; a group of boys once attempted to lynch her when she was 16, which caused her to drop out of high school.

Darling often escaped this world for the excitement of local gay bars or the Manhattan LGBTQIA scene. There she could be herself, dressed to the nines.

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Darling’s acting aspirations took off when she met Andy Warhol. Attracted to her outgoing personality and beauty, Warhol saw her potential as a star. How could he not? She was the living embodiment of Marilyn Monroe, Joan Bennet, and Jean Harlow all in one.

As a Warhol Superstar, Darling’s personal aesthetic was a combination of Hollywood nostalgia and 1970s bohemian. She blended prints with furs and lace, and because of her tall frame, she never veered into tacky territory. She accessorized these looks with platinum hair, patterned headscarves, and kohl-rimmed eyes.

At the young age of 29, Darling died of lymphoma. Her funeral was a star-studded event with Gloria Swanson saluting the coffin. While in the hospital, Peter Hujar created the famous photo series “Candy Darling on her Deathbed,” which documented the actress in the hospital. Although extremely sick, she still looked like a movie star.

Candy was both brave and brilliant by just being herself. She once said, “There is one thing I must tell you because I just found it to be a truth …You must always be yourself no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.”

To learn more about Candy Darling, check out the 2010 documentary, Beautiful Darling.