This is the designer behind the iconic Playboy suit

Vanessa Calys-Tagoe November 11, 2022
Zelda Wynn Valdes is behind the Playboy suit. Photo: Getty

You may have seen women in that onesie that had no hands hug their bodies properly and it was complemented by two rabbit-like ears worn on their heads. This costume is worn during Halloween, cosplay, or just about any dress-up party you may have seen it being worn, but ever wondered where it originated from?

Well, the playboy suit as it is called stays the forever classic strapless corset, rabbit ears headband, pantyhose, bow tie, collar, cuffs, and poofy cottontail that will be remembered for centuries as a symbol of seduction and allure. Its creator, Zelda Wynn Valdes, took her time in creating a design of a lifetime, and here is how it all started.

Valdes was the oldest of seven children in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she learned to sew by watching her grandmother’s seamstress. Her first foray into style came when she offered to construct a gown for her grandmother. Her grandmother objected, believing Valdes would be unable to accommodate her size and height, but she was pleasantly surprised when Valdes not only sewed the dress, but it turned out beautifully.

She started her own sewing business in White Plains, New York, in 1935. She oversaw female alterations and grew her dressmaking clientele. Valdes opened her design and dressmaking studio, “Chez Zelda,” on Broadway in 1948. Her shop is said to have been the very first Black-owned business on Broadway. Valdes’ store featured her trademark low-cut, body-hugging gowns that unapologetically accentuated a woman’s curves. To mention a few, Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West wore and adored Valdes’ sexy-but-sophisticated gowns. In 1948, she even created Maria Ellington’s wedding gown as she crossed the aisle and married jazz singer Nat King Cole.

She is best known for creating original outfits for the Playboy Bunnies and the Harlem Dance Theater. Valdes was admired for her design skills, particularly her ability to highlight the female body through her body-hugging creations. Valdes’ key role in glamorizing these women piqued Hugh Hefner’s interest, and he appointed Valdes to create and sew the first-ever Playboy Bunny costumes. And history has shown that low-cut, skin-tight, sexy clothes are an iconic symbol of sensuality and enchantment, instilled in pop culture for all time. Valdes took great delight in making women of all shapes and sizes look and feel like divine beings, as well as the meticulous detail, stitched into every custom-fitted creation. Suffice it to say, she was the go-to designer for any woman looking to stand out in a one-of-a-kind gown.

She was a master of her craft and was often heard in interviews saying “I simply had a natural talent for making people look beautiful.”

Valdes went down in history not only as the first to have her black-owned business but as the sole designer of the playboy costume that many all over the world love today.  Her legacy is long and everlasting, despite her death in 2001. From dressing Hollywood darlings, Playboy Bunnies, and ballerinas, she made her mark. 

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