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Exhibit Honors 20th Century Cleveland Black Fashion Legend Amanda Wicker

Amanda Wicker taught students from 1925 until the late 1970s at her Clarke School of Dress Making and Fashion Design in Cleveland. [Western Reserve Historical Society]
Amanda Wicker at a fashion show

Amanda Wicker held court in Cleveland for decades as a fashion designer, business owner, teacher and community leader. While it’s been more than 30 years since her passing, the Western Reserve Historical Society is teaching a new generation about her legacy with its latest exhibition, “Amanda Wicker: Black Fashion Design in Cleveland.”

Wicker moved to Cleveland from Georgia nearly a century ago with her husband, McDuffy Wicker, as part of the Great Migration. Having studied teaching at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and dressmaking with an apprenticeship in Washington, D.C., Wicker started her own business training others in sewing out of her Cleveland home in 1925. Despite the onset of the Great Depression and the death of her husband around the same time, Wicker stayed in business, eventually moving her school out of the home and into a nearby building (no longer standing today) at East 89th Street and Cedar Avenue in the Fairfax neighborhood.

The Clark School of Dress Making and Fashion Design was inside this building (no longer standing) at E. 89th Street and Cedar Avenue in Cleveland. [Western Reserve Historical Society]

“From those humble beginnings, we get this great school that goes on to employ other people and create opportunities,” said Regennia N. Williams, distinguished scholar of African American history for the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Wicker designed clothes throughout her life, from wedding dresses to suits and evening wear. More than a dozen of those creations as well as her photograph collection were donated by her niece to the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Wicker named her school the Clarke School of Dress Making and Fashion Design after Addie Clarke, her instructor in Washington, D.C. She ran the school for decades before selling it and retiring in the late 1970s. 

Amanda Wicker taught students for decades through her Clarke School of Dress Making and Fashion Design. [Western Reserve Historial Society]

“She taught high-fashion design couture techniques. But also, if you wanted to be trained in garment industry factory work, she could train you on machines that way, too,” said Patty Edmonson, curator of the exhibition now on view at the Cleveland History Center.

“I think playful is a good word for her style, fun with a little bit of sparkle sometimes,” Edmonson said.

Some of the designs on view in "Amanda Wicker: Black Fashion Design in Cleveland" at the Cleveland History Center [Carrie Wise / Ideatream Public Media]

For decades, Wicker also celebrated Cleveland’s Black fashion scene with annual shows called “The Book of Gold.” The large-scale events featured models wearing the latest designs, live entertainment and scholarship awards for students.

Through the fashion shows, Wicker created opportunities “not just for the models, but also for the musicians and the printers and the others who helped to create those gold standard fashion experiences on an annual basis,” Williams said.

Beyond the school and fashion shows, Wicker was also active in the community as a member of Antioch Baptist Church and the Cleveland NAACP.

In reflecting on Wicker’s life in Cleveland, Williams said she believes Booker T. Washington, the founder of Wicker’s alma mater, would be proud of her legacy. 

“I think Amanda Wicker is still teaching us in the wake of her passing, just as she taught people during her lifetime,” Williams said.  

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.