Black beauty and fashion | The premise of a love/hate relationship

les mannequins noirs tyra banks ima naomi campbell noemie le noire

On the occasion of Fashion Week and following the last controversy over the low number of black models on the catwalk, I wondered what is the place of black beauty in the cutthroat world of modelling. What allows black women access to modelling? Who are the influential black models? What are their contributions?

The first black mannequins were employed in stereotypical roles in promoting products associated with colonialism and slavery. In 1918, the South African Maurice Hunter became the first black male model earning $ 25 per job for different roles of butlers , drivers and porters in ads for cigarettes or alcohol.

naacp the crisis edition 1928 naacp the crisis

Newspapers owned by African Americans, such as The Messenger, The Chicago Defender, Opportunity and the NAACP ‘S The Crisis, began offering new opportunities for African-American models in advertising of consumer products.

Josephie Baker égérie de Pluko Hair Dressing

Josephie Baker, the face of Pluko Hair Dressing in 1926

The emergence of African-American cosmetic companies

In the 1920s and 1930s, African-American cosmetic and hair product advertising featured relatively few professional models selling products. Many companies turned to famous African American stars of stage, screen, and nightclubs. The Madam C.J. Walker Company often used  Walker herself in advertisements even some years after her death in 1919.The Walker advertisements also used prominent African American society women, preachers’ wives, and community leaders in ads. Often, cosmetics companies used sketches and illustrations of women in advertisements, which may or may not have been inspired by real African-American women. Black models, which should be an obvious choice for this kind of work, were excluded because they were not famous.

By the 1930s, companies like Nadinola, Palmer, Poro, Apex, and Walker regularly used photography and often featured the same model over and over in advertisements.

By the 1940s, and especially in the 1950s and 1960s, black cosmetics advertisers used models regularly, reflecting the role black models now play in commercial beauty culture as representative of ideal beauty.

The birth of African-American magazines



In November 1945 the weekly magazine, Ebony, was created. John H. Johnson wrote in his autobiography, ‘we helped create new jobs for Blacks in advertising and related fields. Back then there were no Black ad agencies or Black models. We helped change all that. We stressed the importance of using Black models.’

Six years later, Jet Magazine (1951) joined the market. The magazine has helped to highlight the beauty and success of African- Americans: he had talented blacks in business, entertainment, medicine, law, etc. which inspired others to achieve their dreams despite the segregationist climate.


Essence Magazine, a fashion magazine for African-American women, joined these periodicals in May 1970. Today, all three magazines continue to appeal to wealthy, middle-class and working-class readers. African-American magazines Ebony, Jet and Sepia have given greater exposure to black women by featuring stars such as the first black actress, Diahann Carroll, dancer Juanita Hardy, and the first woman mannequin, Sidney Poitier, who made the cover of Ebony in 1951.

diana caroll 1962 ebony

The creation of agencies for black models

Modeling operated under an apartheid system since the creation of the first modeling agency in New York in 1923. Black models were restricted to play the roles of servants in advertisements. White-owned agencies such as Ford, and premier fashion titles Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, were strictly off limits to black beauties.

This universe was governed by infantry Nordic blondes. The answer to this was self-help. African Americans began to create their own agencies.

In 1948, Ebony reported on the “First Interracial Charm School” citing ‘caucasian standards of beauty’ as the reason that black models failed to find work. For the most part, as Ebony attests, white-run modelling agencies excluded women of colour, forcing the creation of the Brandford agencies, and other firms that specialized in representing black women.

Grace Del Marco black model agency

Grace Del Marco black model agency

Ed and Barbara Wilson created Brandford Models, the first agency for black models in the world, in New York in 1946. In 1947, Grace Del Marco Agency, which was founded by former model Ophelia DeVore, followed suit. In 1956, American Models completed the trilogy. In 1954, Ebony said there were two hundred black models working in New York.

Ophelia DeVore

Ophelia DeVore

When DeVore , an African American woman with light skin began modelling at age 16, she pretended to be a Norwegian and signed several lucrative contracts in Europe. Prior to 1946, African-American women with light skin had to pass for white women to obtain employment and training in the industry. This is how DeVore studied at the Vogue Modelling School: as a white woman.

Ophelia_DeVores_Ecole de mannequin noirs

She filled the void by establishing a modelling agency to create a new market for non-white women where they no longer had to pretend to be white women to get a job. Her models appeared in ads for Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi Cola and Revlon. Nevertheless, they still reinforced society’s Anglo-Saxon norm with their light skin and long, straight hair.  They did not reflect the diversity of the African American community they represented. Still they contributed to allow other black models to do their job. At this time, support among African American models was paramount.


We will see later how some of their successors were able to penetrate and become popular in the very closed world of fashion …

 Source : Ben Arogundade – Black Beauty

One Comment

  1. Among the beautiful black women who were trailblazers, we have Ms. Cicely Tyson. She was signed with the Brandford Modeling Agency in 1953! There is an article in the New York Age Newspaper in October 1953 celebrating Ms. Tyson’s modeling contract.

    Thank you for this beautiful article and someone should make a film about that period in time!! I have too many pending manuscripts and projects, but I applaud all those writers who write for humanity! God bless you all!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *