February is an incredibly schizophrenic month. The gravity and intensity of Black History Month is diluted, if not eclipsed, by the glamour of Fashion Week and the Grammys. As we take images portraying these seemingly distant celebrations, we seldom think about how Black History and fashion intersect.
From high top timberlands to “hair tattoos,” Black culture has a pervasive influences on mainstream fashion. In fact, our culture is represented on runways far more often than our people are. Models and designers of color have long struggled to survive in an industry jaded by mainstream perceptions of beauty and yet, despite the odds, they have not only survived, they have thrived. Here are 8 remarkable Black women who changed fashion history.
Born in Detroit, Donyale Luna was the first Black woman to appear on the cover of ANY Vogue, taking center lens in 1966 for U.K. Vogue. One of Andy Warhol’s “Superstars,” she appeared in several of his films alongside sixties superstar Edie Sedgwick.
One of the fist models to sign to Wilhelmina Agency, Naomi Sims made fashion history when she became the first Black model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968.
The granddaughter of a slave and a slave master, Ann Lowe was the first Black designer to open her own studio in New York City in 1950. Known as “society’s best kept secret” a the peak of her career, Lowe was the creative mind behind the fashion of New York’s elite although her clients would not admit to wearing designs by a Black woman. Lowe is credited with designing Jackie O’s gown at her wedding to John F. Kennedy in 1953, but she did not receive recognition for her work at the time.
Born a slave, Elizabeth Kelley earned her freedom through fashion. With the help of a number of wealthy clients, the seamstress was able to earn enough money to buy her and her son’s freedom. From there, she moved to Washington DC where she would be discovered by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Her designs now hang at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and Kent State University Costume Department Museum.
One of the first Black supermodels in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bethann Hardison is perhaps most infamous for discovering fellow supermodel Naomi Campbell. In recent years, she has worked to advocate for more diversity in the fashion industry.
Discovered a Vogue Editor at age 14, Pat Cleveland was a runway model for American designers in the 1960s and. more significantly, a black women with conviction. Discover by the lack of diversity in fashion magazines at the time, Cleveland fled for Europe in the 1960s, vowing to to come back until Vogue printed a black model on its cover. She wouldn’t return for 14 years — the time it took for the magazine to feature it’s first Black cover girl.
Originally from Martinique, Mounia was discovered by famed designer Yves Saint Laurent in the 1980s and shortly thereafter became the first black model to walk in his runway shows and his first black muse.
Discovered in the mid-eighties, Veronica Webb was the first Black model to sign a major cosmetics contract. working as a spokesmodel for Revlon. She would later go on to model for the likes of Victoria’s Secret, Betsey Johnson and Chanel and appear on the covers of Vogue, Essence and Elle magazines.
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