When looking back on the timeless fashions of the 20th century, a few beauties — Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie Onassis — often come to mind. But in reality, Black tastemakers were dictating trends and galvanizing audiences at every turn, having long gone uncredited for their contributions to sartorial history. After all, Josephine Baker’s banana skirt inspired Prada’s flame-engulfed iteration, and Eartha Kitt’s portrayal of Catwoman in Batman solidified the character’s Spandex look as a symbol of cunning femininity. To remember these influential women, TZR rounded up some of the top Black style icons from history that you should know and celebrate.
TZR’s turning the clock back to Dorothy Dandridge, the mermaid-dressed beauty who became the first Black woman to be nominated for Best Actress at the 1954 Academy Awards. On the near-opposite side of the style spectrum, there’s singer-model Grace Jones’ edgy wardrobe, which played host to countless Yves Saint Laurent blazers and structural looks that are still on trend today. Also featured below are Naomi Campbell and Aaliyah, both of whom continuously raised the bar for ‘90s fashion and are responsible for so many of the styles you see consuming 2021’s trend cycle. You’ll also learn about Bethann Hardison and Beverly Johnson, two revolutionary women who’ve contributed to a mass ripple effect of inclusivity with fashion. Discover the non-exhaustive list of Black fashion pioneers that deserve proper homage below.
So many of the Y2K-inspired trends that have been commanded your attention as of late — low-slung trousers, midriff-flossing straps, and body jewelry just to name a few — can be attributed to the fashion prowess of R&B princess Aaliyah. In contrast to the hyper-glossed, heavily-rhinestoned, and girly-girl aesthetics worn by other female musicians of the mid-90s, Aaliyah opted for authentic tomboy basics. She was the queen of stylized athleisure fashion, often pairing baggy Tommy Hilfiger jeans with cropped bralettes and loose track jackets — all of which are experiencing a modern-day resurgence.
In 1974, Beverly Johnson became the first Black model to appear on the cover of Vogue — a historical moment that took over eight decades to occur (the publication was founded in 1892). Johnson went on to appear on over 500 fashion magazine covers throughout her career, and in the process, repeatedly broke down barriers in an industry known to be discriminatory and exclusive. Additionally, her push for inclusivity is an ongoing fight; In a Washington Post op-ed from June 2020, Johnson called out fashion’s pervasive racism, specifically calling out Vogue’s EIC Anna Wintour for her contributions to a toxic culture. Johnson concluded her essay by proposing Condé Nast instate the “Beverly Johnson Rule,” which would mandate “at least two Black professionals to be meaningfully interviewed for influential positions.”
With an acting resume that boasts a Tony, three Emmys, and an honorary Oscar (she was the first Black woman to ever receive the award), Cicely Tyson was an undeniable champion within film. Her style, which was a sartorial celebration of all things dramatic and elegant, was also of the same iconoclastic caliber. Her looks often featured opulent touches of flair — namely fur, feathers, and fringe — and her wardrobe reflected her passion for entertainment and all things glamorous.
Naomi Campbell is a woman who hardly needs an introduction. One of the original members of the crowd of Supers that dominated runways during the ‘90s, the model was known for her close friendships with legendary designers and powerful presence on the catwalk. When off-duty, Campbell was frequently photographed wearing sultry, designer gowns and glitzy party dresses — often of the miniskirt variety. At the age of 51, Campbell remains just as active on the runway and continues to add to her undeniably impressive fashionable legacy.
Bethann Hardison has worn many hats — ranging from trailblazing model of the ‘70s to modern-day advisor for Gucci. She was one of 10 Black models to walk during the 1973 Battle of Versailles, which was an unprecedented number at the time. While standing at the end of the runway in a bright yellow gown by designer Stephen Burrows, Hardison resolutely stared at the audience like a statuesque representation of glamor. “I defied everyone in that entire audience. I defied that entire room,” said the style veteran when reflecting on the event in a conversation with 92Y’s Fern Mallis. “I really wanted them to know that [the American designers] were here to take this because we had been put down so much.” Through her advocacy and pioneering work as a model, not only has Hardison become a style icon herself, but she has opened the door for countless other Black women to embark on their careers in fashion.
Baker was an American-born vedette who, after being married twice as a child (at ages 13 and 15), escaped into the world of dance. Her eventual career in France infused the vitality of Black American culture into the French entertainment scene in the 1920s. She channeled the panache-packed style of the Harlem Renaissance into her bold stage looks, which were rife with fringe, tassels, and glittering accessories. Baker was also known for her activism, being famously invited to lead the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Famed for being one of the first Black women to be cast in a major motion picture, Carroll wore it all — including fur pelts, leather jackets, and tweed shorts. Her early career was underscored by glitz and glamour, which was later swapped out for the more demure aesthetic she took on for her leading role in Julia. She marked the switch by wearing a simple, clean-lined Givenchy gown to her first meeting for the show, which the show creators reportedly did not even recognize her in.
The Detroit icon was famed for her voice, her activism, and her punchy ensembles, both on and off-stage; her ankle-length, feather-plumed coats are a perfect example. She was buried in a glittering gold floor-length dress, forever immortalizing her as the Queen of Soul.
You really can't talk about Black '70s style icons without mentioning Diana Ross. Her always on-point ensembles have put her on top of best-dressed lists time and time again, whether she’s in a silk slip dress or a polka dot pantsuit. Having wanted to be a fashion designer herself, she was known for proudly wearing looks by Bob Mackie and Vivienne Westwood. Her daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross, continues her sartorial legacy today.
Known for her lilting voice in “Santa Baby,” Eartha Kitt was a renaissance woman — working as a singer, actress, dancer, comedian, songwriter, activist, and author in her lifetime. Known for her full leopard-print looks, she advanced to take over the role of Catwoman in the '60s series, Batman — and the unforgettable imprint she left on the character even influenced designers like Hubert de Givenchy throughout his own career.
The Queen of Disco was, of course, known for her electric voice, but her sartorial flexibility captivated the world, too. Summer could shift from a prairie dress (pictured above) to an ostrich feather cape in a flash, all of which she executed flawlessly. For a quintessentially ‘70s aesthetic, peruse through Summer’s bohemian and glittery fashion portfolio.
It's impossible to talk about Black women in fashion without including Iman. Born in Somalia, Iman rose to become the first black supermodel ever — having an entire Yves Saint Laurent collection, “The African Queen,” devoted to her. Her best-dressing continued through her marriage with David Bowie, through which the power-couple was known for showing up to red carpet events in striking, fashion-forward looks.
Known for her androgynous style, Jones was quick to become a muse to Yves Saint Laurent after signing with Wilhelmina at age 18. The Jamaican model's flattop cut and striking features made her a favorite subject for all the top fashion photographers, and her edgy night-out ensembles in and around Studio 54 made a strong case for her off-camera personal style.
Dandridge was the first Black woman to get an Oscar nod for Best Actress, following her performance in Carmen Jones (1954). While the singer-actor blazed a trail in a predominantly white industry, she was persistently discriminated against, being barred from using bathrooms, lobbies, and swimming pools while on tour, and was forced to change in a janitor's closet as opposed to a dressing room. Her love of fashions evoking old Hollywood glamour was consistent through her life, with dozens of strapless sweetheart bustiers and mermaid frocks making up her style file.
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