Fashion Culture | Donyale, Naomi, and Beverly – Fashion’s First Black Supermodels

Donyale Luna, Naomi Ruth Sims, Beverly Johnson.

First Black Models to appear on major magazines – timeline: 

January 1965 – Luna, Harper’s Bazaar, illustration cover

March 1966 – Luna, British Vogue cover

November 1968 – Sims, Ladies Home Journal cover

October 1969 – Sims, Life Magazine cover

July 1971 – Johnson, Glamour cover

August 1974 – Johnson, American Vogue cover

The Black community did not have model representation in mainstream fashion magazines until the tumultuous time of the 60’s when Donyale, Naomi, and Beverly were the first Blacks to grace the covers.  Black beauty had been denied to enter this space for so long, so finally, there was Inclusion, Respect, and Recognition, there was representation, although small, significant.  The power of fashion neutralized the biases.  You can dress a Black model or white model and get the same outcome – fashion.

And when you lay that up against the events that happened, the contrast is extraordinary.  For example, Donyale Luna is on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, January of ‘65 and British Vogue, March of ‘66, after the ‘63 assassinations of Medgar Evers and JFK and the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

April and June of 1968 were the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, respectively; August of that same year, James Brown, who at that point was so fed up with Black inequality, released his popular hit song Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.  November 1968, Naomi Sims is on the cover of Ladies Home Journal and almost a year later on the cover of Life, October 1969.

Flickr, Fashion Covers Magazine
Donyale Luna, Harper’s Bazaar cover, 1965 | katharina Denzinger, artist

March 1966, Donyale Luna [1945–1979] became the first African American model to grace the cover of the British edition of Vogue.  Luna also became the first Black fashion icon, in 1967 her face and form inspired the first black mannequin.  Her modeling career was launched in January 1965 when Harper’s Bazaar featured a line-drawing sketch of Luna on its cover, by the top editorial illustrator, Katharina Denzinger.  The mid-sixties were a time when fashion magazines were not inclined to photograph Black women, let alone feature them on their cover.  In fact, the Harper’s Bazaar 1965 cover, in sketch form, showed ambiguity as to her racial identity.  In British Vogue’s March 1966 cover, the image is obscured, with her hands covering lips and mouth [feature article image].  Luna went on to attain superstar status with Harper’s legendary fashion photographer, Richard Avedon, and in Europe she was photographed by the legendary David Bailey of Beatles and Rolling Stones fame. 

naomi_sims_1457078f
Naomi Sims, Life Magazine cover, 1969

Naomi Ruth Sims, [1948–2009], is widely credited as the first African-American supermodel. A businesswoman and author, Sims was the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1968, and Life Magazine, October 1969.  Sims retired from modeling in 1973, created a successful multi-million-dollar beauty empire including a wig collection, and authored several books on modeling, health, and beauty

 

 

 

Beverly Johnson American Vogue cover, 1974
Beverly Johnson, American Vogue cover, 1974

Beverly Johnson [born 1952] is a model, actress, singer, and businesswoman who is famously known as the first African American model on the cover of American Vogue in 1974.  Prior to that, she was the first African American on the cover of Glamour in 1971, which set record sales and circulation, and went on to appear on 6 more Glamour cover issues.  Johnson’s Vogue popularity placed her again in a June 1975 special “American Woman” edition and the first African American on the cover of Elle, a leading French magazine. 

Donyale, Naomi, and Beverly – Fashions’ First Black Supermodels is part of A Study of Eight, a curated editorial project advancing the study of African Americans’ contribution to fashion history. Eight American stories cover people and events of cultural and historical significance occurring between 1880 and 1980 against the backdrop of the post Reconstruction era to beyond the civil rights movement.  These stories represent the voices of Black Americans who, many at the time, were denied employment, denied credit for their work, or overlooked for their contribution to fashion history, and more importantly, to American history. But against all odds, Black people used the power of fashion to transform their identity and culture to be included, respected, and recognized for their talent, beauty, and brains.

Black History Month [BHM] is a tribute to American history and is celebrated 365 days of the year.  In the belief of fashion as a legitimate subject of study and as part of EDGE’s education content, Fashion Culture presents A Study of Eight, acknowledging the significant contribution Black fashion makers and Black influencers are to fashion’s history.

Sources, suggested further study:

  • Wikipedia
  • BlackPast.org, Referenced in the Congressional Record, is an online reference center of materials on African American history in one central location on the Internet
  • Innocent Kwashie, daughter of Donyale Luna –  fashionpivot.com

Feature image credit: Donyale Luna, Fashion Sizzle

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Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor