Dress for Change: 13 African American Fashion Icons Breaking Barriers
The fashion industry has long been a powerful platform for representation and diversity, and Black History Month is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African American fashion icons.
Throughout history, African American designers, models, and entrepreneurs have made significant strides in the industry, breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations. These industry achievements have been increasing in number as time goes on, one more impressive than the last.
Learn the stories of each of these innovators and see what they persevered through and get inspired for your own path-carving in life.
Grace Jones' rise to stardom is truly a remarkable story. From moving to New York City at 18 and scoring a life-changing modeling contract to becoming a muse to some of the most notable names in the fashion industry, Grace Jones always managed to push the boundaries of modernity and boldness. Her androgynous looks and edgy style were embraced by the Parisian scene and she went on to model for some of the biggest fashion houses, such as Kenzo, Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaïa. She has graced the covers of Vogue and Elle, and is now remembered as one of the most iconic models of the 20th century. Grace Jones is a true example of resilience and style that has had a lasting impact on the fashion world.
Dorothy Dandridge was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She was a force to be reckoned with in her acting, her dancing, and her fashion. She paved her way to Hollywood with a stint as a nightclub dancer with her sister in New York, then dominated in small roles in movies like Lady from Louisiana. Her performance in Carmen Jones was mesmerizing and set the standard for African-American entertainers in Hollywood. She had a timeless sense of style that was ahead of its time and was never afraid to push the boundaries. Dorothy Dandridge was an icon of her time and her influence on fashion and entertainment continues to be felt today.
Diana Ross has been a trendsetter for decades and is truly deserving of the title "Fashion Queen." In the 50s, we were introduced to Diana as 1/3 of The Supremes, one of the first girl groups who were known for their glamorous, iconic outfits created by Bob Mackie. Once Diana began her solo career, she continued to explore daring fashion choices, like her signature sparkling body suits and bold colors. She has continuously pushed the limits of fashion, inspiring new generations of fashionistas. Diana’s influence on the fashion world is truly unparalleled.
Jay Jaxon is an inspirational example of someone who followed their passion and achieved incredible success. His story is remarkable and inspiring - from a law student at NYU to head designer and couturier of a French fashion house at 26, the first African American to undertake this role. By this point in his career, he already garnered great success in working for epic fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. He showed true courage in dropping out of law school to pursue his dream, and his success is a testament to his dedication and commitment to the fashion industry. Jay Jaxon's story is a reminder of the importance of following our dreams and the potential rewards that come with taking risks.
Josephine Baker was truly a fashion icon and performance maven. Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine quickly rose to fame in France in 1925. As a "Lost Generation" American in 1920s Paris, Josephine embraced her theater skills and made a name for herself with her daring and memorable performance in 1926 during Danse Sauvage at La Revue Negre in Paris. Her iconic look of a banana skirt, bustier, slicked-back hair, pencil-thin brows and heavy eye makeup truly made her stand out from the crowd and captured the audience's attention. Josephine was a true trailblazer who will always be remembered for her bold and daring style.
Breaking fashion barriers is what Beverly Johnson is known for. When she first entered the fashion scene in 1971, Beverly took up modeling as a summer job at the age of 19. Her life was promptly changed forever when Glamour hired her immediately to model for them and the rest was history. She was featured on Glamour’s cover six times and amassed positive, popular reviews. Beverly’s ultimate big break came in 1974 when the US edition of Vogue asked her to model for their cover. She became the very first African-American model to be featured on the cover and to this day, her cover is one of the most popular Vogue covers of all time.
Elizabeth Keckley is an inspiring and remarkable example of resilience in the face of adversity. Born in 1818 to two enslaved parents in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, she bravely moved to North Carolina with her son for a few years, and back to Virginia to live with her former mistress. When the family continued to struggle after their move to St. Louis, Elizabeth offered to work as a seamstress to earn the family money and her skills began to gain recognition. She became a successful seamstress in the area, amassing impressive society clientele. As fate would have it, when she moved to Washington DC in 1860, her designs caught the attention of a client who knew First Lady Mary Lincoln. The client requested two dresses from Elizabeth—one for the client and one for Mary—and she was told to make them hastily, directing that if she made them on time, she would introduce her to Mary. The dresses were made, and President Lincoln commented on the beauty of Mary’s dress and Elizabeth went on to sew over a dozen dresses for the First Lady. Elizabeth Keckley is an amazing example of strength and determination in the face of hardship. Her story of success is truly inspiring and serves as a reminder to us all that anything is possible.
Ann Lowe is an incredibly inspirational and talented figure in the fashion industry, particularly amongst African-American designers. She began her craft at a very young age, learning the basics of sewing from her mother and grandmother, and quickly developed her own style. Through her determination and skill, she was able to build a successful career and develop a prestigious clientele. One of her most famous commissions was the bridal gown she made for Jackie Kennedy when she married Senator John Kennedy, a testament to her enduring legacy as a couturier. Ann Lowe is a true example of how talent and hard work can open up amazing opportunities and make a significant impact in the fashion industry.
Dubbed "The original material girl", Eartha Kitt was a true style icon and her influence on African-American history and fashion is undeniable. Her Catwoman character in Batman further solidified her as a fashion icon, with her signature "catlike" look. Her affinity for animal prints, especially cheetah, was bold and daring and she often opted for fitted dresses, turbans, and luxurious materials like fur, silk, and satin. Eartha Kitt was a certified trendsetter and her fashion legacy has already left an indelible legacy on today’s fashion designers, singers, and actors. She will continue to inspire for many years to come.
Willi Smith's approach to fashion was revolutionary for his time. He recognized the importance of streetwear and the impact that it could have on the fashion industry. He wanted to create clothing that was accessible and wearable for the everyday person. His brand, WilliWear, was a huge success, and it is still influential today. His approach to fashion was creative, clever, and unique, and he truly set the standard for streetwear. His legacy as the Father of Streetwear will never be forgotten.
André Leon Talley
André Leon Talley was an inspiration and a trailblazer in the fashion journalism world. He was a passionate advocate for African-Americans in fashion, and an important mentor to many of the most successful African-American fashion designers. His long-standing love affair with fashion began at the age of 10 when he found his first Vogue magazine, and he went on to have a long and illustrious career in fashion media, first with an apprenticeship under Diana Vreeland, then at Andy Warhol's Factory and Interview Magazine, as well as a 15-year stint as Editor-at-Large for Vogue. André will be remembered for his journalistic passion, bold style, creativity, and dedication to his craft.
Actress Cicely Tyson was known for her impeccable artistry on film, advocacy for African-Americans, and beauty, but she is also regarded as a fashion icon. Cicely will go down as one of the most popular African-American actresses of all time, but she got her start as a model in the 1950s when she was discovered by an editor at Ebony Magazine. Cicely attended Barbara Mae Watson’s Modeling School and she became one of the top models in the world. Aside from her wonderful fashion sense and acting skills, Cicely was widely remembered to be the face of the “Black is Beautiful” movement. She proudly displayed her hair in various natural styles, wanting “to alter the narrative about how Black people, and Black women particularly, were perceived by reflecting their dignity.” We are indebted to Cicely for her amazing artistry and her fight for recognition and respect.
Virgil Abloh's journey to becoming a pioneering fashion designer is truly inspirational. He was able to take his mother teaching him how to sew, his education in civil engineering and architecture, and his passion for grand architecture and craft them into a career in fashion. His collaboration with Kanye West at Fendi in Rome in 2009 was a pivotal moment that propelled him to the top of the fashion world. The work he did at Louis Vuitton and his own label, Off-White, have served as major influences in the post-streetwear movement and have revolutionized the way we think about luxury fashion. It's incredible to think that one man's vision and creativity can have such a huge impact on the industry.
"I’m not made for a podium, but I’ll design a podium that ushers in systemic change.” —Virgil Abloh
Black History Month is such a poignant month to truly learn the many lessons that the African-American community has brought to our country. We love to celebrate every single detail of success and excellence, and we especially love the stories and backgrounds that inspire us to push through our obstacles so we can obtain our own triumphs. Stay tuned for more from our Style Mark blog to stay updated on our Black History Month celebrations.
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