Bold Style for a Bold Woman

July 7th, 2014by Joy BivinsFiled under: Collections, Exhibitions, Stories

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Etta Moten Barnett’s leopard-print hat and matching handbag, c. 1960
Gift of Sue Barnett Ish, ICHi-68439

Etta Moten Barnett (1901–2004) was a groundbreaking performer and activist who spent her long life making statements. She undoubtedly accomplished one with this leopard-print topper and matching handbag. Her daughter Sue Ish, who donated many of Barnett’s garments to the Museum, thinks the set matched a cape made from fabric purchased during one of her mother’s many trips to Africa. In the late 1950s, Barnett and her husband, Claude Barnett, founder of the Chicago-based Associated Negro Press, traveled to that continent often to support newly independent nations.

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Promotional photograph of Etta Moten Barnett, c. 1947
Chicago History Museum, ICHi-29231

Etta Moten was born in Weimer, Texas, but spent her youth in California and Kansas. After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Kansas in 1931, she headed to New York City where she landed roles in a number of Broadway productions. Soon her talents were recognized in Hollywood, where she was cast in smaller parts before making waves in Gold Diggers of 1933. Racial segregation, however, limited Barnett’s on-screen opportunities and most often she did voice-over work for white actresses, including Barbara Stanwyck. Despite significant roadblocks, Barnett’s talent was widely respected, and in 1934, the year she married Claude Barnett and settled in Chicago, she made history as the first black woman to perform at the White House.

Watch Etta Moten sing in Gold Diggers of 1933

In 1942, Barnett returned to Broadway for what became her signature role—Bess in the revival of the Gershwins’ epic Porgy and Bess. Many have claimed that George Gershwin wrote the role with her in mind, but Barnett denied this. Barnett, who maintained Etta Moten as her stage name, continued to perform nationally and internationally until officially retiring in the early 1950s. Retirement, however, didn’t keep her from championing many causes and supporting the arts and culture in Chicago. She hosted a number of local radio programs, sat on numerous philanthropic boards, and received several awards, including the Chicago History Museum’s Making History Award in 1998.

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Etta Moten Barnett (standing at left) photographed in her leopard-print cape with her daughter Etta Vee Barnett and her husband, Claude Barnett, c. 1960
Chicago History Museum collection

To see Etta Moten Barnett’s fantastic hat, visit the Unexpected Chicago display in the Museum’s Kolver Family Lobby between now and the end of August.

> Read more about Etta Moten Barnett

> Explore the Etta Moten Barnett Papers at the Chicago Public Library

> Search the Museum collection for material related to Etta Moten Barnett

> Explore the Unexpected Chicago archive

> Support the Museum’s collection

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