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

The Black community did not have model representation in mainstream fashion magazines until the tumultuous time of the 60’s when Donyale Luna, Naomi Ruth Sims, Beverly Johnson 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 result – fashion.

Donyale, Naomi, and Beverly – Fashions’ First Black Supermodels, as part of A Study of Eight, demonstrates that it took a 100 years after the Civil War for Black beauty to be acknowledged and for Black models to be on the cover of mainstream fashion media.

And when you lay that up against the Civil Rights Movement and events that happened, the contrast is extraordinary.  For example, Donyale Luna is on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, January of 1965, and British Vogue, March of 1966, after the 1963 assassinations of Medgar Evers, an American civil rights activist and World War II veteran, and President Kennedy; and the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

April and June of 1968 were the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and U.S. presidential candidate, 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 was on the cover of Ladies Home Journal and almost a year later on the cover of Life, October 1969.

Another point of reference: in the 70’s, Beverly Johnson was the first Black model to be on the cover of Glamour, July 1971.  In August of 1974, Johnson was on the cover of American Vogue – the same month President Nixon resigned from office.  Her August 1974 cover was nine months after the American success at The Battle of Versailles fashion show (November 1973), which was a game changer for Black models.

First Black Supermodels 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

Flickr, Fashion Covers Magazine
Donyale Luna, Harper’s Bazaar cover, January 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. 

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Naomi Ruth Sims, Life Magazine cover, October 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, August 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. 

A Study of Eight are eight American stories that 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 (CRM).  These stories represent the voices of Black Americans whose communities were marginalized through economic, political, and social means.  But oppression did not stop progression, in fact, it was happening simultaneously, particularly in the 1960’s.  In this story, Donyale, Naomi, and Beverly – Fashions’ First Black Supermodels, Black beauty was beginning to matter enough to the industry, recognizing that their lack of inclusion did not represent the buying power of the Black community.  The struggle for social change opened the doors for Black models and fashion played a pivotal role in influencing that outcome.

Sources, suggested further study:

Feature image: Donyale Luna, British Vogue cover, March 1966

 

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor