Museum show here on Supremes' dresses, times
The beaded gowns, feathered shifts, and sleek jumpsuits donned by Motown sensations the Supremes were almost as phenomenal - if not more so - than the group's string of hits such as "Stop! In the Name of Love," and "You Can't Hurry Love."
So those who loved the look of the fashionable trio, whose original members were Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson, will be delighted about Wednesday's announcement by the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Wilson is in town this afternoon to promote the forthcoming fashion exhibition: Come See About Me: The Mary Wilson Supremes Collection, set to open Jan. 25. It will feature more than 30 dresses courtesy of Wilson, the unofficial keeper of the historical and sparkling treasure trove.
This is not the first time the dresses have been on display. They were featured at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland in 2004, and the exhibition has traveled to several other museums in the United States and England.
"It's like reliving history," Wilson said. "It's about three little black girls making their dreams come true. So I get excited every time they go out, like when I go out on stage."
The Philadelphia version of the exhibition will display video footage, gold records, album covers, historic photographs, and news stories from the group's heyday that spanned 1959 to 1977, through the civil rights movement, the fight for women's equality, and the Vietnam War.
"It is about more than sequins and boas," explained Patricia Wilson Aden, senior vice president of the African American Museum.
"It's about the Supremes in their various roles. We are going to talk about women's empowerment, self-esteem, and self-development. It explores Mary Wilson's personal journey."
In the early days, when they were living in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit, the singers purchased gowns off the rack and embellished them.
As they started to earn more money, they began shopping at department stores like Jacobson's. Come See About Me includes a white satin gown with beaded bodice and matching jacket from Jacobson's that the group wore on The Hollywood Palace on TV.
Eventually, when they reached celebrity status, top designers including Bob Mackie and Michael Travis would be commissioned to design their gowns.
One of the gems of the exhibition includes the "Black Butterfly" by Mackie, a velvet gown with heavily beaded sleeves the women wore when they performed with the Temptations in the 1969 G.I.T. on Broadway television special.
The exhibition also includes a handful of gowns the group wore on The Ed Sullivan Show. One of Wilson's favorites is a hot-pink chiffon gown with rhinestone neckline called "Sullivan's Delight."
There's also an emerald green full-length gown with an empire waist that Wilson wore while performing in the mid-'70s - when she was pregnant. At the time, that was a bold style move; when women in the public eye were expecting, they disappeared until they had their babies and slimmed down.
"That was so rare at the time," Aden said. "They were breaking barriers for women."
Wilson eventually inherited the dresses, as each departing member handed over their gowns to her.
But the gowns weren't retired. They were altered to fit the additional members, including Cindy Birdsong, Jean Terrell, Scherrie Payne, and Susaye Green. (Long before social media mayhem and glossy magazines, groups would perform in the same outfits over and over again.)
"I didn't create it, it kind of fell in my lap," Wilson said, referring to the dress collection. "It was amazing after everyone had gone, I was the only one there, and I had all these gowns."
Come See About Me will be curated by Duke University African American studies professor Mark Anthony Neal. Neal, a well-known commentator on black pop culture and lifestyle issues, was in town Monday to begin work curating the exhibition, which will be organized around themes of breaking racial and gender barriers.
After all, before there was Destiny's Child, it was the Supremes that delivered the first images of feminine and elegant African American women, a deliberate plan by Motown president Berry Gordy and the label's stylist, Maxine Powell.
"They were the first 'around the way girls,' " Neal said, referring to LL Cool J's name for the girl-next-door. "Their glamour was accessible in a way Marilyn Monroe's glamour wasn't because they grew up hardscrabble in the Detroit projects. They were the American dream."
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215- 854-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.