The Top Black Style Icons From History To Celebrate — Including This Quintessential Fashion Muse
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 singers, models and entertainers were dictating trends and galvanizing audiences at every turn, having long gone uncredited for their contributions to sartorial history. After all, it was Josephine Baker whose banana skirt inspired Prada's flame-engulfed iteration, and it was Eartha Kitt's portrayal of Catwoman in Batman that solidified the character's Spandex look as a symbol of cunning femininity. To remember these influential women, we've rounded out the top Black style icons from history that you should know and celebrate.
We're turning the clock back to Dorothy Dandridge, the mermaid-dressed beauty who became the first Black women Oscar-nominated for Best Actress in 1954. 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. TZR's also revisiting the more-celebrated style files of Bianca Jagger and Diana Ross, both of whom raised the bar for '70s fashion time and time again.
Ahead, more Black icons that deserve proper homage.
1. Josephine Baker
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 1920's. 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.
2. Diahann Carroll
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.
3. Aretha Franklin
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.
4. Bianca Jagger
At the intersection of androgynous and ultra-femme fashion is Bianca Jagger. The Halston muse was crucial to evolving our current concept of '70s style. She never shied away from a borrowed-from-the-boys look, sporting a bespoke YSL skirt suit (featuring the brand's iconic smoking jacket) for her wedding to Mick Jagger in 1971. Jagger always knew how to switch gears, though — she donned a lace-corseted, hoop-skirted dress to the Met Gala in 1981.
5. Diana Ross
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 donning 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.
6. Eartha Kitt
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 her imprint on the character influenced designers like Hubert de Givenchy through his life.
7. Donna Summer
The Queen of Disco was, of course, known for her electric voice — but her sartorial flexibility that 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.
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 in striking looks.
9. Grace Jones
Known for her androgynous style, Jones was quick to become a muse to Yves Saint Laurent after signing with Wilhemina 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.
10. Dorothy Dandridge
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 the 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.