Walter Rhett

Pat Cleveland: The Runway Muse

In Arts, Business, Living, Media on March 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Perlo’s sense of history and culture is seen through the prism of the 20th century. The scattered patterns of sparkle shine on the success of men and women from the small villages of the world, of youngsters who climbed off dirt roads and gritty sidewalks into celebrated roles in the world’s power corridors. This storm of dancing lights is a main theme for this arc of time. The 20th century finds its renaissance in the bright flowering of people, in names tied to spectacular achievements. This high arc has wide, deep, and amazing reflections in the new millennium.

In time’s back and forth, the amazing lights of Mahatma Gandhi in India and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana changed our world in large and small ways. Gandhi’s India changed America’s customer service and is now a major economy, source of immigration, a community of contrasts and emerging ideas; Nkrumah’s Ghana helped make “Funga,” an African welcome dance, the standard taught in community centers to thousands of young girls and boys. But most importantly, Nkrumah led his nation from colonialism to freedom, ending the European dominance and control of Africa. By throwing off Europe’s governance for independence, he began the liberation of a once conquered contiment.

Golda Meir (Meyerson), the daughter of a Jewish carpenter and Milwaukee grocer once raised $50 million–money that made the state of Israel a reality. Later, she was Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, and won election as Israel’s 4 th Prime Minister.

Chou En Lai (now spelled Zhou En-lai) survived the Long March, a 8,000 mile march in winter crossing the world’s roughest mountainous terrain, served as China’s first Premier under China’s revered Mao Se Tung (Mao Zedong), and paved the way for China’s unprecedented emergence from a feudal, pleasant society to the world’s most advanced economy; China makes trade goods from computer chips to infant seats for the American market-but its fastest growing US imports are zinc, nickel, and lumber!

The 20th century was a time of names, long before cable and the internet. One of these names died two years ago, Naomi Sims, one of the earliest and most auspicious African-American 20th century models. She appeared on the covers of Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Time.  (Women of African descent have modeled for eons; they appeared on coins in the ancient world and on paper money in every Confederate state.)

Sims was born in Oxford, MS, grew up in Pittsburgh, raised by a white foster family, and went to New York after she graduated from Westinghouse High. Creative, beautiful, and persistent, she self-marketed her skills directly to photographers and advertisers who clamored for the fresh, astounding face that agencies rejected with thin excuses. Naomi Sims jumped the color bar and found astounding success as a model and later, as a business woman. In its 1 st year, her wig business grossed $5 million.

Naomi Sims’ death at age 61, brings another name to mind from the fashion world, a woman, gratefully still with us, a name from the social columns of my college years, Pat Cleveland. Although in the same industry, Pat Cleveland had different gifts than Naomi Sims. Largely, Pat was and still is an insider. Among those who follow fashion she causes a stir.

What Michelangelo did with a brushstroke, Pat could do with her toe. When her foot hit the carpet, something electric happened. Fashionai would surge forward, bounding out of their seats to see what dress or jacket, sports outfit or formal wear Pat strutted. What Michelangelo put on canvas, Pat brought to life.

Innocent with an edge, street-wise and beautifully normal, Pat was the original quiet storm. Scientists call it kinetic, the ability she possessed to allow her whole body to give unspoken definition to feeling, mood, or attitude. Her runway walk offered combinations of sass and charm, without allure. Pat could project sheer joy, a bounding, transparent happiness that caused watchers to gasp and smile. She was glorious without excess. Pat didn’t just show clothes. She touched hearts.

Believe it, that Pat Cleveland has special gifts. But her gifts of body and soul didn’t make headlines; rather than celebrity and fame, Pat build a career on connections: connections to clothes, to people in the industry, to people who support and follow it. Outlandish, sophisticated, cloistered, Pat changed the air in the room and made the colors more vivid. For an Italian designer she once emerged in complete darkness, trailing a 72 wedding veil light by hundreds of twinkling Christmas lights.

Having reached her fifties, Pat is still the guiding light of the runway. Many feel she is the best runway muse of all time. Halston called her his muse, and so did Yves St. Laurent.


Her mother came to New Jersey from the 1940’s poverty of rural Georgia and won an art scholarship to Pratt Institute. A youthful Pat grew up with the doyens of the New York art world; she was the youngest model to work in Ebony’s Magazine’s national touring show, Ebony’s Fashion Fair. Her friendships and loyalties are deep, unusual in an industry that is catcalled as superficial, diva-driven, laced with angst, with even the hottest season’s models soon disposable. Yes, she danced at Studio 54, and partied in Paris, New York, London, Milan. Yet, after 4 decades, Pat remains. Intact. Still revered.



She walked into fashion without ego or aspiration or ambition, thrilled by the incredible talents of the designers and their clothes. She found in the trail of simple steps along a fashion show runaway a chance to throw off all the strings and demands of an industry built on whimsy.


What she offered instead, was a joy as fierce as the sun, signaled by an extended finger, a sly turn of the shoulders, a lift of the head, the whirling cross of a leg flashed in motion, each detail done with the spare economy of a shout in a joyful blues. The runway was her chance to shine.

As she paced, she showed us unknown places and ways to feel, places we immediately recognized, although they had been unmined. Pat Cleveland’s very real theatre guided us into a new body language and taught us to extract an exciting freedom, both intimate and vulnerable, both loud and shy. More than race, she broke down human barriers. For all that she changed within the industry, Pat Cleveland’s biggest advances came by showing us how to negotiate the terrifying obstacles we stumble over, in our own fashion, within.

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All photos, fair use.


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