A gaggle of reporters spun in their chairs and craned their necks to watch Mary Wilson, an original member of The Supremes, enter the room for a recent event to mark the opening of Come See About Me: The Mary Wilson Supremes Collection, an exhibit now on display at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
With a low cut leopard printed dress hugging her slender frame and shimmering stiletto heels, Mary Wilson exhibited all the true glamour and magnetism of a Supreme. She shared memories of her bouffant days and stories of performing in Philadelphia clubs. She laughed about how the DJ’s played their albums’ B-side tracks, songs that the girls didn’t imagine they’d perform. In fact, by the time they got requests to sing them, they sometimes forgot the words.
The gowns in the exhibit have toured from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Royal Albert Hall in London. However, with 5,000 square feet dedicated to music, rare archive footage, photographs, ads, the exhibit at the AAMP is unique. It immerses patrons into a bygone era that introduced a whole new sound.
While other female groups at that time, such as The Chantels, also embraced an elegant image, nobody did it quite like The Supremes. “We went overboard in the glamour department,” laughed Mary Wilson. “We embodied all the best of dressing up. We dressed up like royalty.” The gowns, which are the highlight of the exhibit, were key to The Supremes’ iconic image, synonymous with glamour, success, and sophistication. It was a style that called out to young fashionistas and aspiring designers, flaunting decoration without gaudiness.
Guest curator and professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University, Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, explained how the these women and the gowns that accentuated their slender frames, also countered early African American “mammy” stereotypes. From Bob Mackie’s “Black Butterfly” dress, in form-fitting black velvet with glass jewels and pearls dripping from a plunging neckline, to the white wool “Goldie” mini dress, these designs conveyed a message of combined sexuality and class.
But this exhibit isn’t just about fashion. Ms. Wilson said she was once approached by gentlemen who had been in the Vietnam War, who, as soldiers, were “dying to get pictures” with The Supremes. “You see how wide reaching the career was,” she said. The Supremes represented a time of women’s liberation, flower children, and squealing when your favorite artists sang on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Mary Wilson said she wants her collection to transport people back to what they were doing when they first heard their tracks. Whether it was fumbling their first kiss to “Baby Love” or painting their first peace sign to “Love Child.”
“The black community was going through a huge transformation [at the time],” Mary Wilson noted. During a pivotal period for civil rights, three African American girls from Detroit rose to stardom. In a time of segregation and rising social climates, the only major publication in the United States that would really feature The Supremes on the cover of their magazine was Ebony. However, Ms. Wilson explained that, with artists like Sammy Davis and Lena Horne paving the way, black men and women were developing a new presence in television. The significance of performing on “The Hollywood Palace” or “The Ed Sullivan Show” never escaped the girls. All eyes were on them.
When the girls were just 17 to 18-years-old, Maxine Powell, a Motown talent agent and founder of Motown’s Artist Development Department, told them that they must “be prepared to perform for kings and queens.” At the time they laughed it off — they were just some girls from the Brewster projects. However, years later they were welcomed into the UK — the way that the US welcomed the Beatles — with their photos splashed on the cover of all the magazines. And in 1968, they performed for the Queen Mother at the Royal Variety Performance. “It was unheard of,” said Ms. Wilson. “It was a true Cinderella story.”
“The exhibit brings to mind three little black girls who dared to dream,” stated Mary Wilson glowing with pride. The exhibit features the 30-pound gowns they wore the night they performed for the Royal Family, now called the “Queen Mother” gowns. Soft pink, with beads circling the high neckline to the shoulders, and jewels woven into the silhouetted frame from top to bottom, no photo can do them justice. To say the exhibit is about a girl group is a gross oversimplification. The Supremes have been woven into the history of 1960’s culture — with gilt thread and rhinestones.
Stephanie Ogrodnik is a senior Screenwriting and Playwriting Major at Drexel University.