Monday, 16 November 2015

La'Tanya the beautiful African American vintage designer


Bernice L'Tanya Griffin was perhaps the first African American artist known by a single name. Based on information related by friends who had known her, Dorothea Towles Church and Alma Rangel, I assumed that she was yet another East-coast transplant to Los Angeles, like Dorothea and her acclaimed hat designer associate, Mildred Blount. Certainly throughout her professional life, L'Tanya continually cross-crossed the country to show and sell her designs at charity fashion shows.

Besides being a gifted designer L'Tanya was also extremely beautiful. How unlikely it seems that she was in fact, as her birth certificate and the 1920 Federal Census reveal, born not Bernice L'Tanya, but, Julia Bernice, on February 2, in 1919. Her parents, who lived at 113 East Cora Avenue in Spokane, Washington, were Albert and Katie Turnham Hilbert.  Mr. Hilbert, known as "Doc" was born in Kansas and 38-years old when she was born. His wife, a Texas native, was 36. Doc Hilbert supported his family, which included three older children, 9-year-old Albert M.Hilbert, Vivian D. Hilbert, who was 8, and George E. Hilbert, just 6-years old, as an Hotel waiter.
Before the Hilbert's moved to Seattle, little Julia Bernice had dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. However, she exhibited such marked talent for drawing as a high school student, teachers persuaded her to study art instead of dance.
 Dandrige, wearing L'Tanya!


The far-reaching publicity L'Tanya received in the 1940's and 50's, make her total obscurity today, all the more troubling. Before 2005, to my peril, I had certainly never heard of her. Conducting research for the Museum of the City of New York's groundbreaking exhibition, Black Style Now. an exploration of how popular black culture and hip hop had driven fashion, which I co-curated with respected designer Michael McCollom, I first encountered this name. The Time-Life photograph of Dorthy Dandrige below, actually identified the dress as by L'Tanya, but she was utterly unknown by me and nowhere to be found on-line. Moreover, I had seen an image from Jet, where Dandrige is being fitted for a similar gown, by Zelda Wynn Valdez. Adding two and two, I got ten. I was wrong, and I apologize.  

Art by Taj Francis