Zelda Wynn Valdes: The Mother of Bunny Girls
The iconic bunny girl suit: one of anime’s prominent items of fan service.
Since its debut in a particular historic student animated film in 1983, countless characters have worn the alluring outfit, ranging from Bulma from Dragon Ball, Haruhi Suzumiya from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Saki from Girlfriend Girlfriend, and Mai Sakurajima from Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai.
Even characters who’ve never worn it in canon material can be seen donning the outfit in other media. Got a “boring” female lead whose people think her only personality trait is rambling about the bonds she holds dear to her? Throw a bunny girl suit on her in your gacha game. People will look over the flatness of her character
(and physical) traits! Is she the toxic ex-girlfriend type who everyone in the fandom hates? Just make a figurine of her as a bunny girl. Everyone will love her and forget how she manipulated her ex-boyfriend!
Sex sells, you know?
Of course, the origins of the bunny girl suit of anime can be traced to the Playboy Bunny’s waitress uniform: a symbol of sensuality in its own right. Everyone knows that! Countless women wear it for Halloween or at a weekend anime convention. It’s the perfect way for ladies to show off their confident, playful side. That’s a known fact. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know about the man behind Playboy: Hugh Hefner and his impact on erotic and gentlemanly media.
But did you know that a Black woman designed the bunny girl suit?
Meet Zelda Wynn Valdes: An extraordinary Foundation Black American. Without her talents and a keen eye for fashion design, we wouldn’t have cute and sexy fictional and real-life bunny girls for us straight, healthy heterosexual men to fawn over!
Okay, but for real, despite her grand achievements in fashion, pop culture, and most importantly, the Black community, few people know about her. I want to change that – not as a mere anime fan who loves bunny girls – but as a Black man who’s proud of the achievements of his people and what we’ve done for the world.
In this article, we’ll go over the extraordinary life of Zelda Wynn Valdes, her impact on the Black community, and how a chance suggestion from Playboy director Victor Lowens inspired Hefner to hire Zelda to design the Playboy Bunny outfit. You know, the suit that’d forever changed pop culture and anime fan service trends.
If all that sounds great, then let’s get right into things!
Part One: The Woman Herself
Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on June 28th, 1905, to Cuban father, Jose Valdes, and Foundational Black American mother Ann Barbour. Despite her mixed heritage, Zelda identified and connected with her Foundational Black American roots. While most of her youth and general life are unknown (due to Zelda being a private person and the lack of record keeping), she held an affinity towards sewing, pattern design, and the musical arts.
By age 13, she was already a skilled pianist and seamstress who impressed her family with her talents. Her beloved grandmother, who once doubted that she could design a dress for a woman of her tall frame, was so impressed by the final product Zelda made for her that she was buried in it.
After graduating high school in 1923, Zelda moved to White Plains, New York, to work at her uncle’s tailoring shop. In addition to working there, she also worked at a white-owned boutique. There, she worked her way up to selling, alterations, and later becoming the store’s first Black salesperson and tailor. Zelda stated that working at the white-owned shop “wasn’t a pleasant time, but the idea was to see what I could.”
The idea paid off as by 1935, she opened her own business in White Plains, where she focused on women’s alteration. By using Black-owned publications to advertise her services, she expeditiously built her client list and reputation as a highly-skilled designer among Black women.
In 1948 she opened her own boutique, “Chez Zelda,” in Manhattan on Broadway and West 158th Street (modern-day Washington Heights): becoming the first Black person to do so. Zelda’s reputation among influential Black celebs and high society circles exploded as time passed, with many noticing her work.
Black celebrities of the time, such as actress Dorothy Jean Dandridge, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, and Maria Cole, hired Zelda for her services: furthering her credibility. In 1994, Zelda told The New York Times that she only fitted Fitzgerald once in the 12 years they worked together. “I had to do everything by imagination for her,” Valdes stated. She achieved this by looking at recent pictures of Fitzgerald in the newspapers and taking notice of any changes.
As the late 40s went on, Zelda focused on designing dresses for special events and serving her client’s needs by working with their personalities. At the same time, she became president of the New York chapter of the National Associate of Fashion and Accessory Designers (N.A.F.A.D.): A Black fashion designers’ think tank.
In the 1950s, Zelda moved her shop to 151 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan, hiring nine seamstresses in the process. Taking advantage of the prime New York neighborhood, Zelda made her brand more exclusive by charging over $1000 (or $12,000 in 2023 adjusted for inflation) per dress. The Black women who wanted her services didn’t care to pay the high prices; Zelda’s shop was a safe haven against the white supremacy they would have faced otherwise at white-owned boutiques.
As time passed, Zelda’s talents were in higher demand by more and more Black celebrities. Joyce Bryant, a megastar singer in the Black grassroots of the time, was one of them. Known for her sex appeal and many nicknames such as “The Bronze Blond Bombshell” and “That Voice You’ll Always Remember,” Joyce had landed a photo shoot with LIFE Magazine in 1953. Understanding that this would be a significant career milestone for her, she hired Zelda to design a dress for the photo shoot.
Before meeting Zelda, Joyce was known for dressing modestly due to her strict religious upbringing. Zelda noticed this and created a dress for the singer to expose said curves to the world. The dress?
The iconic low-cut skin-tight gown – Zelda’s trademark dress design.
It was a massive hit. All eyes were on Joyce as millions of LIFE readers fell in love with her and her dress. From this, Joyce Byrant’s career skyrocketed as she became one of the early pioneers of Foundational Black American sex appeal.
As for Zelda, her reputation and fame grew stronger as the 50s continued. There was no doubt that Zelda was an accomplished woman at this point in her life. She was undoubtedly among the most successful and respected people in the fashion world and the Black community.
However, what the future had in store for Zelda would change not only her career but also change pop and anime culture forever…
Part Two: The Birth of the Bunny Girl (Suit)
As Zelda’s reputation as a master designer grew, an up-and-coming adult gentleman publication from Chicago caught wind of her flair for capturing feminine sexiness through fashion.
In 1958, Hugh Hefner commissioned Zelda to design the world’s first Playboy Bunny waitress outfits for his chain of Playboy Clubs on the strong suggestion of Playboy director Victor Lownes. Playing with the fact that rabbits symbolize sexuality and sexual nature, Herfner confidently believed she could translate his desires into reality with her talents.
So, was Zelda able to deliver?
If you said no, I need to ask you to put down the pipe and bottle for once in your pathetic life…
The outfit was first previewed on Playboy’s Penthouse: a variety talk show hosted by Hefner. It would officially debut on February 29th, 1960, in Playboy Magazine, where it received high praise. Valdes’s original design of the Playboy Bunny suit differs from its contemporary version as the ears were much larger and lacked the iconic bow tie and cuffs (they were added on later). Regardless, it was a success.
The Playboy Bunny suit would become the first commercial uniform registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Prior, only military and government uniforms were allowed registration. Next, and as I’ve said before, the suit significantly impacted pop culture. Countless female celebs have worn it in films (like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, and The House Bunny) or just for fun. Finally, when it comes to anime, let’s say the suit winds up taking a life of its own.
To understand, let’s take a time machine to 1983 Osaka, Japan.
August 20th, 1983.
Student animators from a local university are working hard to finish their short animated feature for the sci-fi convention Nihon SF Taikai Daicon IV’s opening ceremony. The group, led by Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, and Hideaki Anno, gained a favorable and respectable reputation within the otaku and animator communities for their impressive work on their short animated film Daicon III during the last Daicon convention two years earlier.
For those unaware, Daicon III focuses on a schoolgirl requested by the Science Patrol from Ultraman to deliver a glass of water to “DAICON”: a battle spaceship shaped like a daikon radish. On her quest to the DAICON, the unnamed heroine faces off against other copyrighted figures like Godzilla, a mecha from Starship Troopers, ship fleets from Star Wars and Star Trek, and other famous figures from Western and Eastern nerd media.
Despite Daicon III‘s success, the trio planned to disband after the convention. However, instead, they founded their own production company, Daicon Films (which later became Gainax). They figured that because they were in debt, the team could use the money they had earned from their film’s sales to help finance their next animation project (Daicon IV) to get out of debt.
Daicon IV debuted later that morning in front of thousands of otakus holding high exceptions for Daicon Films. The short opens with a quick 90-second summary of the previous film, with Kitarou’s Noah’s Ark serving as background music. Following this, Electric Light Orchestra’s Prologue plays with its lyrics appearing in space as an outline of the DAICON battle spaceship passes.
However, the film truly beings once Prologue Transition into Twilight.
Some time has passed since Daicon III, as our heroine has grown from an innocent schoolgirl to a proud, action-driven battle-harden warrior woman. Her immunity to copyright laws reappears as she faces off against a never-ending army of sci-fi monsters, Gundams, a giant Xenomorph, and of course, her legendary showdown with Darth Vader – complete with lightsabers and storm-troopers.
The most essential thing that needs noticing is that our heroine is in a Playboy Bunny Girl suit: marking the first time an animated character has worn it…granted, without either Zelda’s or Playboy’s permission. Nevertheless, it shows how influential a Foundational Black American woman like Zelda Wynn Valdes was to pop culture globally with her fashion designs.
Since Daicon IV, the bunny girl suit has served as a noteworthy emblem for anime fanservice. In Japan, it has long since lost its association with Playboy and is simply known as the bunny girl outfit. In fact, instead of merely having a female character wear the suit, some creators have made full-on literal bunny girls such as Reisen from Touhou, Usagiyama from My Hero Acamedia, the Chiester Sisters from Umineko no Naku koro Ni, and for you sick weirdos out there, Haru from Beastars and Carrot from One Piece.
But enough with fictional women who’ll never make an immutable impact on the world long-term outside of geek circles! Let’s see what a real woman who actually did something for the world, Zelda Wynn Valdes, was up to in the 80s.
Zelda, now age 84, has since closed down Chez Zelda. Before the closure, she’d worked with famed ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell to design costumes for and tour with his company, The Dance Theater of Harlem. Despite her advanced age, Zelda was able to produce for over eighty productions and, like always, came up with a new innovative design.
The design? Matching the tights of the dancer with their skin tone.
While that may seem basic by today’s standards, you must understand the times Zelda was living through. Black dancers were forced to wear pink tights to emulate their white counterparts’ skin tones. So, from that, she wanted Black dancers to embrace their skin with thighs mimicking their skin tone. Valdes continued working with The Dance Theater of Harlem until her death on September 26th, 2001, in New York City at 96.
Zelda Wynn Valdes lived a robust life filled with milestones and achievements that would impact not only her life, community, and time but the world of media. She has touched, inspired, and blessed so many people with her talent, and even after her death, her iconic designs are still being used and worn today. Fashion, like all trends, will change over time – that’s a given. But nothing will ever change the fact that Valdes’s art will always stand the test of time.
“I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful.”
-Zelda Wynn Valdes.
The Swarthy Nerd Podcast
A Black nerd empowerment podcast where Black nerds (well, all nerds, but Black first and foremost) can get together and talk freely about nerd culture while also acknowledging systematic white supremacy and racism in nerd culture. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday we drop episodes containing serious and laidback topics, while on Saturdays, we drop episodes talking about TV shows, anime, film, comics, manga, and video games.
My Facebook Page:
Yuki The Snowman