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30 Black Models That Made Fashion History

From the iconic to the up-and-coming.
30 Black Models That Made Fashion History

The world of fashion hasn’t exactly been known for it’s diversity over the years. The first half of the twentieth century elevated a mere handful of black style icons—like the eternally-glamorous flapper Josephine Baker and the 1940’s jazz songstress Billie Holiday—and the march of progress within the fashion industry itself was even slower. It seemed that modeling agencies, designers, and editors all tended to look for one type of body, one type of face, and one skin color. Baker and Holiday were major outliers in the racially-segregated, largely conservative milieu of the early to mid-twentieth century, as black women were afforded very little recognition in any field by mainstream media during this time period.

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In an era defined by the prejudicial treatment of black Americans and the concurrent rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the black community started to develop outlets for exploring the impact of fashion, entirely separate from the unwelcoming environment of the fashion industry at the time. African-American lifestyle publication Ebony magazine was launched in 1945, and its cross-country runway show, the Ebony Fashion Fair, was launched a decade later, in 1958. Together, they provided a much-needed outlet for black women systematically excluded from the pages of white-targeted fashion publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar

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While Ebony and other publications targeted at a black demographic are still very much part of the picture today, the racial exclusion practiced throughout the industry finally began to dwindle with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Donyale Luna became the first black model on the cover of any Vogue, when she was photographed for the magazine’s British edition

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Slowly but surely, black models began to break through the racial divide in fashion. In the 1960s  and ’70s, ground-breakers like Luna, Pat Cleveland, Grace Jones and, eventually, Iman, started appearing on the scene, oftentimes championed as one designer’s muse. Cleveland and Luna were undisputed darlings of the mod YouthQuake fashion scene of the sixties, and they set the stage for more and more black models to break into the industry.

Even then, a runway show might contain one black woman to thirty white women, and it took a long time for black models to become widely accepted. Eventually, however, Beverly Johnson became the first black woman to cover American Vogue in 1974, and the black It Girls of the sixties and seventies gave way to mainstream black supermodels like Veronica Webb and Naomi Campbell in the 1980s and ’90s, who were succeeded in turn by contemporary superstars like Joan SmallsJourdan Dunn, and Chanel Iman.

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And—while women of color are still outnumbered by Caucasian women on the runway—the number of high-profile black models is ever-increasing. Just this past month, African-French model Cindy Bruna appeared in an advertising campaign for Prada, just the third black woman ever to do so. While Prada’s runways still aren’t winning any prizes for diversity, Bruna’s appearance in its campaign is a clear indicator that fashion is moving further and further away from the racial boundaries that have limited the scope and impact of the industry during the past century.

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In honor of Black History Month and Fall 2014 Fashion Month, we’ve compiled a list of 30 black models that have shaped the fashion industry in the last forty years, from the iconic to the up-and-coming.

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