Harlem fashion designer Ruby Bailey highlighted at the Museum of the City of New York

NEW YORK — As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we spotlight a fashion designer from Harlem whose work brightened our city streets from the 1930s through the 1990s.

She never achieved great fame and fortune beyond the city, but she influenced generations of artist and designers.

Ruby Bailey grew up during the great Harlem Renaissance when intellectual pursuits and art and culture thrived.

She was 7 years old in 1912 when she arrived in New York City from Bermuda. She was an actress and a painter, but her main focus was fashion. Her work was inventive and bold, with much of it lovingly Afro-centric.

Her works of wearable art caused a sensation in Harlem, but whites dominated the larger fashion industry, which did not make room for Bailey. 

Her work is now getting noticed with a career-spanning collection at the Museum of the City of New York. 

“It is very Harlem-focused. It’s vivid. It is exciting,” said Elizabeth Randolph, collections manager for the museum’s costume collection. “She was inspired by her heritage.”

Bailey hand-crafted petite Barbie-sized “mannequins,” made with cotton fiber and glue. The museum has 29 of them.

“It’s based on a dress that she actually wore, and there are photos for her wearing the actual dress for this,” Randolph said of one of the mannequins.

Randolph continued, “In this time period, people of color were not really accepted into the echelons of fashion, and in New York fashion, in particular … Not a lot is known about her life. Her and her mother and her sister, they lived together on 151st Street for much of her life.”

The items featured in the exhibit featuring Bailey are rotated, so you may see different pieces each time you visit.

“I think Ruby Bailey was a visionary,” Randolph said. “No fear of being bold and bright.”

Bailey died in 2003 at the age of 97.

Randolph says Bailey deserved better from the fashion world when she was alive, but at least we now finally celebrate this trailblazer.

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