28 Days of Black Fashion History: Arthur McGee

Considered the grandfather of fashion designers of color, Arthur McGee got his start in fashion after entering a contest for a scholarship to Traphagen School of Design in New York. He won the scholarship, left his home in Detroit, Michigan and headed to the Big Apple.

A pearl and bead encrusted pinstripe jacket made for the Oscars.

He went on to study millinery and apparel design at FIT, and while there, began working for couturier, Charles James. You might ask, “Why millinery?” Arthur would make hats for his mother, his source of inspiration and a hat lover. So when he got to FIT, he was already able to make them and was placed in the millinery department. According to McGee, he stayed for about 6 months, but then left because they told him “there’s no jobs for a Black designer.” So he left, went to the village, and the next week several actresses bought multiple items from him. From there he began making clothes for broadway actors as well as working for other seventh avenue companies.

Hand sketches from Arthur McGee.

When I started, I was working in backrooms designing whole collections with no credit. –Arthur McGee

A short film about Arthur McGee shown during the honorary luncheon given by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In it, he speaks about his experiences being the first Black designer on Seventh Avenue, his inspiration, and his design process.

In 1957, he was hired to run the design room of the apparel company, Bobby Brooks, becoming the first African American to hold such a position for an established Seventh Avenue apparel company. His design aesthetic was classic silhouettes “with a twist”, and he would often work with African fabrics and create looser Asian inspired silhouettes. However, his designs appealed to a broad audience, transcending ethnic barriers. McGee’s designs were sold in stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman. He would eventually go on to open his own shop in the early 60’s with celebrities such as Lena Horne, Sybil Burton, Mrs. Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson and Stevie Wonder as his loyal clients.

An evening dress made with mudcloth. There were about 20 of them made, but not one that’s is in the archives. This picture is the only “archive” left of this masterpiece.

I could make $8,000 designing two dresses for an ad where the clothes match the car. Then I would walk into an office wearing a custom-made suit and they still assumed I was the messenger. –Arthur McGee

Ever the mentor, Arthur McGee was known as the “dean” of African American designers, mentoring many young, emerging designers and students throughout his career. In more recent years, his contributions to the fashion industry have been recognized by various institutions. In 2009, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a luncheon in his honor. And in 2010, the Fashion Institute of Technology honored McGee with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the fashion industry for the last four decades.

A collection of Arthur McGee’s designs.

[W]hen you love fashion, you do it, no matter what. They try to keep us in a corner, but I know I’m good, and I’ll be designing when I’m 95.–Arthur McGee

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