On this day 36 years ago, Mayor Marion Barry Jr. declared June 12, 1982 Ethel Lois Payne Day in Washington, DC. Collections Researcher Bailey Ferster commemorates the day by digging into the museum’s collections for a personal look at this grande dame of journalism.
Known as the “First-Lady of the Black Press,” Ethel Payne earned a reputation as a no-nonsense journalist who asked some of the most challenging questions. We’ve written about her accomplishments before in this blog, and today we reflect on her personal sense of style.
In line with her fearless journalistic practice, Ethel Payne was a bold and charismatic dresser, unafraid to stand out in a crowd. Photographs show her wearing bright colors and eye-catching prints, and a 1987 painting portrays her elegantly attired in a loose-fitting multicolored dress with a long bead necklace, pendant earrings, bracelets and large rings. The background is painted in muted tones that accentuate her strong presence.
Some of her personal effects in the museum’s collection include a set of patterned deer hide suitcases and fur trimmed capes she used while traveling. Many of the clothes she donned were custom-made outfits from overseas, tangible connections to the cultures she experienced while traveling for work. One of her most treasured accessories, however, was a wide-brimmed green hat decorated with artificial flowers, leaves, and berries. Wide-rim hats as well as floral hats were popular during much of her career, from the 1940s to the 1970s, and Ethel’s pistachio green hat took the fashion to its zenith. More eccentric and expressive than most, the hat was decorated by hand, each flower, berry, and leaf stitched into place with green thread that is visible on the inside and underside of the brim. This hat, and Ethel’s other eye-catching fashion choices, lend credence to historic tales of her commanding presence on the media circuit.
An ongoing museum project to document objects in our collection is adding depth and texture to our understanding of important community leaders. Ethel Payne’s hat and other personal accessories speak to her unique style and provide a sense of her striking personality. Her fashion choices offer an intimate look at the remarkable woman who earned a national reputation for her trailblazing work in journalism.