The Supremes are one of the most important groups of all time—not just for their chart-topping hits and their ability to break into the mainstream, but also for their iconic style. Beyond the18 year career, revolving door of members and even the skyrocket of lead singer Diana Ross, their glamorous legacy still lives on.
“We were living proof that dreams do come true,” recalls Mary Wilson, a founding member of the group who has brought a new exhibit, “Come See About Me: the Mary Wilson Supremes Collection,” to the African American Museum in Philadelphia. “It [the exhibit] brings to mind three little Black girls who dared to dream at a time when it was an impossible dream”.
The exhibition is in fact a dream, a visual confection of grand glamazon proportions. Before En Vogue, Destiny’s Child and countless other girl groups, Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson performed in what seemed like an endless array of heavily beaded gowns, brightly hued shifts and butterfly capes and jumpsuits.
The group appeared on the Ed Sullivan show a staggering 17 times and the exhibit includes a neon pink strappy dress called “Sullivan’s Delight” that was worn for their dress rehearsals before performing for the TV legend. There’s also a handmade dress of rhinestones weighing over 30 pounds that was worn by Wilson when the Supremes met Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1968.
Compromised of more than 30 gowns and outfits—some made by iconic American fashion designers such as Bob Mackie and Michael Travis—it’s hard to imagine that these pieces were in a storage facility under Wilson’s name until 2004, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame asked for them for an exhibition. Since then, she has traveled the globe with the dresses, embarking on an entirely different interpretation for each showcase. In this latest presentation, she collaborated with Blair-Murrah Exhibitions, known for hosting works from artists such as Salvador Dali and William Gropper.
The Supremes have name dropped that Josephine Baker, Carmen McCrae and Lena Horne as sartorial inspirations; yet, the ladies’ mothers, aunts and grandmothers were their first style icons. “Mary mentions that the women in their life played a significant role in shaping their image. They were dressed to the nines to attend church and community affairs. They were the backbone of their families,” notes Patricia Wilson Aden, Interim President and CEO of the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Upon entering the exhibit, you’re transported back to the early and mid-20th century, a time when Black women were most often portrayed in popular culture as mammies, jezebels and sapphires. Large scale images of Black women as domestics and “Coloreds Only” signs adorn canary colored walls. Parallel to this, a cluster of floor length emerald sequin gowns appear. One features an empire waist where an exposed baby bump is sculpted to a bronzed mannequin’s figure. The gowns are entitled “Three Crème de Menthe” and Wilson was the one with the baby bump. Unlike now, it was a daring feat for any female performer in the 1960’s to perform or even be photographed while pregnant.
“The Supremes embodied style, class and integrity at a time when those were some of the only attributes that African-Americans could legitimately claim in American society” says guest curator, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University and expert in Black pop culture. “The grace and confidence that the Supremes personified would inspire a nation and continue to serve as a shining example of modern Black womanhood—American womanhood.” Dr. Neal has been the central force in developing the exhibit’s historic content.
The exhibition isn’t all about pretty frocks and glamorous gowns. “We wanted to provide a context, a sense of narrative, to what was going on before and during the Supremes rise to international fame,” Aden mentions. The exhibition offers a look into some of the most complex themes of early 20th century of America. Among them: stereotypical representations of African American women, segregation and the challenges it presented for performers of color and the Civil Rights Movement.
“There’s a universality to them that I think anyone can relate to. They are pioneers for African Americans,women and specifically African American women.” Aden adds. “They’re the American dream.”
The exhibit will run January 24, 2013 through June 30, 2013 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Jared Michael Lowe is a lifestyle journalist and editor-in-chief of lowefactor.com. Follow him on Twitter @jaredmichaelowe