Much has changed since these inspiring women of color launched their careers. For instance, models used to be the “It Girls” of the fashion industry. Then came a flock of celebrities. They were the ones who sat in the front row and appeared on the covers of magazines. While that is still true today, bloggers and influencers leveled the playing field with careers of their own. No one knows for certain what the future holds, we do know that if it was not for these trailblazers, our world would look a lot more bland. Besides the fashion industry, women of color have contributed to many different aspects of the American and even European culture. Here is our list of women that everyone needs to know, pin to their mood boards, and admire.
Naomi Sims is credited with being the first African-American supermodel and the first to sign with Wilhelmina Models. She was successful with many firsts, including being the first black model on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal and TIME Magazine. It was a real Black is Beautiful moment, and a grand contribution to the movement. The model even went on to design successful collections of wigs and cosmetics exclusive to black women.
Josephine Baker might have grown up poor in Missouri but her personality was bigger than life itself. The entertainer and civil rights activist adored France and moved to Paris, which resulted in her worldwide fame. She found freedom in France. The singer’s frequent travels and seductive personality made her an ideal candidate to be a spy for French Military Intelligence Service during WWII. She praised France with making her who she was and said, “The Parisians gave me their hearts, and I am ready to give them my life.” With her help, countless European Jews were saved and given new identities. Josephine Baker was the first African American woman to receive France’s highest honour of being inducted into Panthéon, the nation’s hallowed tomb of heroes.
Donyale Luna, born Peggy Ann Freeman, was the first woman of color to appear on the cover of Vogue. Before the 1960s, black models were often used as background props or not used at all. Then models like Donyale Luna arrived on the scene and worked with photographers like Richard Aevdon. Like many before her, the supermodel found the US fashion industry too stressful and moved to Europe where she felt freer. It was in “Swinging London” where Luna made a name for herself. In fact, she was a covergirl 11 times between 1965 and 1975. Another interesting fact to know about Donyale Luna is that she was a muse for artists like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.
While we would never reduce Ella Baker and her important work to being just a beauty icon, the civil and human rights activist needs to be on the list because she is a hero and a natural beauty to boot. Known as a behind-the-scenes organizer, Ella Baker is a name everyone needs to know. She mentored and worked alongside some of the most noted civil rights leaders, such as, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, and Stokely Carmichael. This hero did not stop at racism, she criticized the US for its sexism as well. Her work has effected the lives of everyone, not just the black community.
Lena Horne was a glamorous actress, singer, dancer and civil rights activist in the 1950s. In 1951 she was declared “Hollywood’s Newest Glamour Queen” by Ebony magazine. She was also one of the few African American actresses of her time to grace the cover of Life magazine. Make sure to watch her film, Stormy Weather, and you will likely recognize the song and her voice. Speaking up against racism might have effected her career, but they could never erase her talent and obvious mark on the world of cinema.
Model turned advocate, Bethann Hardison, is a force to be rocked with. She was discovered while working at New York’s Garment District and went on to be a runway model with one of the most unique walks. Not everyone appreciated her walk, but her uniqueness was favored by well-known American and European designers alike. Hardison broke barriers in the 1970s when she appeared in magazines like Allure, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Today, she is the founder of a modeling and management agency that bears her name. Bethann Hardison never wanted to be an advocate for equality in the fashion industry, but because of her wisdom and experience, she felt that she had no choice but to help mentor the next generation of black models.
What can be said about Grace Jones that has not been said already. Grace Jones is a personality unlike any other. The model, singer and actress rose to prominence during the late 1960s. Her abstract look and willingness to wear fantastical looks makes her every designer’s dream. The fabulous model moved to the US from Jamaica and became a muse for both the fashion and music industries. Artists like Lady Gaga and Rihanna credit her with inspiring them. Grace Jones has a music career of her own. In 1999, she ranked 82nd on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll. Make sure to listen to “I’ve Seen That Face Before”.
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was an American actress, singer and entertainer with a successful career, but a tragic life and death. She is known for being the first African-American film star to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. At the beginning of her career Dorothy Dandridge performed with a singing group called the Dandridge Sisters. They quickly became a fixture at various clubs, which helped them climb the latter by opening for artists like Cab Calloway. When the group branched out to TV performances, Dandrige found herself in a solo film role in a movie called Four Shall Die. From there on she worked in film for years, but did not land her first starring film role until 1953. The film was Bright Road. The actress is probably most famous for her role in a musical film Carmen Jones. Throughout her career, Dorothy Dandrige performed at famous venues, like the Cotton Club in Harlem, Apollo Theatre, Waldorf Astoria’s Empire Room and Mocambo club in Los Angeles. Dorothy Dandridge expressed her frustration with the lack of roles available to her in Hollywood. Even though she was a famous, she still faced discrimination in segregated night clubs. There is much more to be said about Dorothy Dandrige and her life. I urge you to read Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy.
We all know and love Diana Ross (or at least you should). This iconic beauty is known for being the leading singer of the Supremes. To this day the Supremes remain to be the best-charting female group in history, with a total of twelve number-one hit singles on the US Billboard Hot 100. That is quite the accomplishment. Becoming a successful black female singer during the 1960s was no easy task. When Diana Ross embarked on a solo career in 1970, her “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” song became a number one hit. As a result, Ross was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Diana Ross has had a successful career in music, film, television and on stage. Besides being talented, she is a fashion icon and her daughter Tracee Ellis Ross continues to enrich the family name and legacy.