Downtown's Howard Street was jammed on the Saturday before Easter, and Diana Kane was busy with her new modeling agency.
That was five decades ago. Back then, as a black woman, she was a pioneer: She founded a business on what was then Baltimore's principal shopping street at a time when few African-Americans could shop in the fashion houses there.
Within a few years, Kane saw results. The glossy department store catalogs started showing African-American models. It was the 1960s, and their appearance was something of a first for Baltimore.
African-Americans had not previously appeared as models in advertising publications then focused on a white audience. Only a few years before, black shoppers were not allowed to try on clothing at the stores that were now courting their business.
"Baltimore was notorious in retail circles for its shopping segregation," said department store historian Michael J. Lisicky, a friend who has written books on Hutzler's, Wanamaker's and Gimbels. "Downtown Baltimore sales peaked in 1958 as customers went to the suburbs. The stores were desperate to find a new customer base. What better way to court a new demographic and new customer base than to put black models in their catalogs?
Kane, who is retired but still closely follows fashion trends, changed perceptions of race in her quiet, highly personal way.
She recalled the day she opened above a white-owned fashion shop, Benton's Tweed Shop, on Howard Street. Its owner, Benton Pumpian, had a chain of fashion shops, and Kane had been a customer at his Mondawmin Mall store. She befriended the businessman, and he offered to let her have an unused floor in his downtown outlet.
"It's in my blood. My family has always been sartorial," Kane said recently as she spread a personal archive across a dining room table in her home, which overlooks the Gwynns Falls Valley in the Fairmount neighborhood. "I was always body- and health-conscious. I was being hired to put on fundraisers and benefit shows. Soon I was just showing up at the department stores and saying, 'It is time you start using black models.'"
She had announcements printed for her agency's opening. The Diana Kane School of Modeling at 313 N. Howard St. made its debut on June 5, 1960, a Sunday afternoon.
Over the next decade, the women and men of color she recruited and developed started walking down fashion show runways and appearing in ads and promotions that once were white-only.
"She made strong people out of us," said Jacqueline Johnson, a former modeling student who now owns boutiques in Atlanta. "She taught us to be proud black women."
Johnson said Kane visited her alma mater, Edmondson High School, in search of promising students. Johnson enrolled at the school on Howard Street and before long was modeling for Hochschild Kohn, Hutzler's and the Hecht Co., and doing bridal shows at the Marriott Hunt Valley.
Johnson said the experience helped her summon the courage to become a Maryland state trooper. Within a few years, she was promoted to detective. She later moved to Georgia and went into the retail fashion business.
Kane strategy was to rely on her own self-confidence and to cross the racial divide. "Before long, my models were appearing in National Bohemian beer ads," she said.
She relied on her instincts for recruiting.
"One day I was at the Read's drugstore at Howard and Lexington, and saw a women working behind the soda counter," she recalled. "I said to her, 'Oh, my goodness, you could be a fashion model.'"
That Read's worker became known as Carlotta, a tall, statuesque woman who was part of Kane's modeling troupe.
Kane remained active in fashion for years and helped stage the annual Easter parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. Spring was her busiest season. She presented shows all over Baltimore. In the 1990s, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was part of her crew and assisted in fashion shows.
"Easter was so big in Baltimore because of the hats," Kane said. "The models wore their hats and were judges, too. I wish women wore the hats like they once did. You might see a few at the Preakness.
"I love good clothes and fabrics. I still do," Kane added. "The way young people dress today makes me cringe."
I also cringed this week when I visited the site of her old agency, 313 N. Howard. It was boarded, empty. Lengthy stretches of the street are depressingly stagnating.
Then, in the distance, something caught my eye. In the past few weeks, a new residential building, M on Madison, has risen a few blocks northward, at Howard and Madison. Is this a sign of better times to come to the neighborhood?
And while many of the old shopping places are gone, others are arriving. National fashion retailers — J. Crew and others — are heading to Harbor East. And many of the shopping errands I once undertook on Howard Street I now do at the re-energized Mondawmin, where Diana Kane encountered the fashions she admired.
Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts