28 Days of Black Fashion History: Wesley Tann

J. Wesley Tann, Jr. (known to many as simply Wesley Tann) fine tuned his fashion skills early on working for some of New York’s most renowned designers. He would eventually become the first African American designer to open his own shop on 7th Avenue in New York City.

Born in North Carolina, Wesley was taught to sew by his mother. Unfortunately, Tann’s mother died when he was 13, and he left North Carolina to attend school in Washington D.C. After he graduated, he attended Hartford Art School of Fashion at night while working during the day. His time in Washington, D.C. exposed him to all kinds of people—politicians, educators, civil rights leaders and entertainers—all, unknowingly, helping to mold his future life.

Tann’s business (along with a few other designers) was featured in the New York Times on April 9, 1963.

In the 1950s, he moved to New York where he did his apprenticeship under Paula Trigere, Oscar de la Renta and Tina Motley for Tahari. By 1961, Tann had established his own company, creating dresses starting at $75.00 and evening wear starting at $145.00. His clothes were sold at upscale department stores like Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman, and B. Altman. And his clientele read like a Who’s Who list of celebrities. Diahann Carroll, Leontyne Price, Jennie Grossinger and even several Miss Americas all wore his designs. In 1962, he was chosen to make maternity clothes for then first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

Tann’s work in the New York Times fashion section. The caption reads “Simple uncluttered lines keynote Wesley Tann’s spring and summer clothes”.

Tann was successful. He had a strong business sense, managing his business well (unlike many of his counterparts) and was featured in the New York Times on multiple occasions. However, Tann left his business in the early 1970s, citing the difficulties of dealing with racism from local suppliers as part of his reason for closing.

A JCPenney ad in Ebony magazine (February 1999) honoring various African American designers who made contributions to the fashion world. Wesley Tann is standing, far right.
Inaugural dress idea for former first lady Michelle Obama

He then began a second career working in interior design. His projects ranged from private homes to offices in the Pentagon. He would also become an etiquette expert, teaching classes on how to “decorate and dine” on a budget in Newark, New Jersey where he lived in his later years. Senator Cory Booker (then, the Mayor of Newark) called him “the eternal first gentleman of the city.” 

Wesley Tann with some of his interior design students in Newark, NJ.

Over the years, he would continue to work in Newark not only as a teacher and expert but also a community activist, fundraiser and volunteer. Because of his efforts to help improve his community, the corner of Clinton Avenue and Osborne Terrace in Newark, New Jersey was renamed J. Wesley Tann Way in 2014. Tann died in November of 2012 at the age of 84.

A street sign at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Osborne Terrace bears the name of J. Wesley Tann Jr., a Newark resident who worked tirelessly as president of his block association. (Barry Carter/The Star-Ledger)

#Did you know that Wesley Tann stayed with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in his 27-room home in Washington, D.C.? He was met by a chauffeur holding a sign with his name on it.

A meal in the congressional dining room on Capitol Hill was where he got his first experience of poor etiquette when we picked up his bacon with his hands. Immediately afterward, Powell told him he had somewhere he wanted him to go. The “somewhere” would be the International School of Etiquette and Protocol in Washington.

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