Biography

Mildred Blount wearing a hat that she created for the film, "Back Street"

Mildred Blount, ca. 1943

Mildred Blount entered the fashion world as an independent teenager living in New York City in the 1920s. Born in 1907 and orphaned before the age of two, Blount developed a precocious sense of independence. As a young woman and artist needing to provide for herself, Blount earned her high school diploma by making a living during the day and completing her studies in the evening. It was during this period of her life that she became involved with millinery. She continued her education at Cooper Union Art school, where she was a student alongside the well-known sculptress and future Rosenwald fellow, Augusta Savage.1 

The millinery classes that Blount taught at the YWCA along with the acquisition of private clients sustained her life in New York City. But the miniature hats that she designed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair made her famous. Designed in styles en vogue from 1680 to 1937, Blount wanted to show the world the depth and value of millinery history. After demonstrating such impressive talent and potential, she responded to a job advertisement from the famous New-York milliner, John Frederic’s. In a 1946 issue of Ebony magazine, a journalist describes this as a historic moment: “It took courage for her to ring the bell at John Frederics in answer to their ad for a learner, for this was the royalty of America’s hatters. They were taken aback. No Negro had ever applied before. Yes, she assured them she had talent. All she asked was a chance. P.S.—She got the job.”2

During her 13-year tenure at Frederic’s, Blount made hats for Gone with the Wind and Back Street. And yet, her experience at Frederic’s was not without drama. In a handwritten letter to William Haygood, Blount claimed that Frederic’s had taken credit for her work, not attaching her name to any of her creations for their salon or for certain contract work, such as Gone with the Wind.3 The label’s marginalization of her creative work must have encouraged her to step out on her own. As Jessie Carney Smith notes in the Encyclopedia of African American Business, "Milliner Mildred Blount's work was seen but not publicly acknowledged."4 

Her application for a Rosenwald fellowship represented a step toward professional and financial independence. Blount was awarded a fellowship between July 1, 1943 and May 1, 1944 in the amount of $1,800. In her application, she states the goal to create more period hats in miniature, which would serve as teaching aids, art, costume design and would also demonstrate the value of extended study in millinery. By the mid-1940s, right around the time of her fellowship, this legendary milliner left Frederics and founded her own label in Los Angeles.5 Her personal customers included Marian Anderson, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Gloria Vanderbilt. She became known as the “milliner of the stars” and was the first African American member of the Motion Pictures Costumers Union. Not only were numerous clients impressed by her work, but her ability also attracted the attention of author (and former Fisk librarian) Arna Bontemps, who featured Blount in his book, We Have Tomorrow

Design Historian Pat Kirkham and Professor of Interior Design Shauna Stallworth place Mildred Blount as one of the best known “Black women fashion designers [who] gained greater recognition in every major American city during the 1940s and 1950s.”6 For Blount, hats were a form of self-expression that allowed her to express her inner beauty. Her efforts, in part, were devoted to insisting on African Americans’ intellectual contribution to American society and to spotlighting the talent of women. In her Rosenwald fellowship application, Blount pressed that:

My desire to do this work is first of all to acquaint all who see it with the hidden possibilities of women.”

An ambitious artist, Blount was driven both to make it on her own and to pave the way for others.

Less is known about Mildred Blount between the 1950s and time of her death in 1974. Given the period of her fellowship, this exhibit shines light on her life events and projects between 1943 and 1948.

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1. Thomasina Ayers. "Front--Center!," Los Angeles Tribune, December 14, 1946, 10.

2. Jill Morena, "Mildred Blount: 'Milliner to the Stars!' and designer of hats for 'Gone With The Wind,'" Ransom Center Magazine, University of Texas, published November 19 2014, https://sites.utexas.edu/ransomcentermagazine/2014/11/19/mildred-blount-milliner-gwtw/.

3. Letter, Mildred Blount to William Haygood, 8 February 1943, Rosenwald Collection, Box 394, Folder 5, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collections, Fisk University.

4. Jessie Carney Smith, ed. Encyclopedia of African American Business: Updated and Revised Edition, Volume One: A-L (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2018), 301. 

5. Jill Morena, "Mildred Blount: 'Milliner to the Stars!' and designer of hats for 'Gone With The Wind."5.

6. Pat Kirkham and Shauna Stallworth, "African American Women Designers," in Women Designers in the USA 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference, ed. Pat Kirkham (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 127-28.

Biography