Black Fashion History


When God created black people, He created beings that could turn nothing into something. He allowed us to take the belly of a field animal and turn it into fashion. The talents he placed within cannot be denied nor can they be mistaken. Think of those thousands of slaves who dressed up in their “Sunday’s Best” to show the master that they could also dress to impress or that Southern Baptist mother of the church that captures the attention of hundreds with her view obstructing hat and tailored two piece suit with the matching heels. When that mother has her grand entrance into the church’s sanctuary she’s allowed us to see that despite how her week was she’s going to be sure that you see how regal and elegant she can be. The following individuals have shown us that despite adversities, you are capable of doing it all. Take a seat and allow “The Campus Chronicle Airline” Flight 1871 heading to Wakanda school you on your black fashion history.

Fashion Super Model Donyale Luna set the tone for black models nearly fifty years ago when she graced the cover of British Vogue as the first African American on the cover of Vogue. In March of 1966 she shattered the glass ceiling for black models worldwide when she was featured on the cover of the famous magazine. With her light skin tone and her slightly slanted eyes, she was often mistaken to be from another culture. Luna’s fashion career and life was short lived due to heavy drug usage. She died May 17, 1979 to an accidental heroin overdose.

The year was 1974, “Tell me something good” by Rufus and Chaka Khan was slowly climbing the charts and the White House was steadily falling apart while under the leadership of former President Richard Nixon. A young 22-year-old aspiring model from Buffalo, New York is about to take the fashion world by storm. Would American fashion lovers and Vogue magazine subscribers be ready to see the face of a gorgeous melanin queen on the cover of America’s #1 fashion magazine? Well in August of 1974 Beverly Johnson defied the odds and became the first African American to be featured on the cover of American Vogue. “It was like being the Jackie Robinson of modeling,” Johnson stated.

Born on June 28, 1905 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Zelda Wynn Valdes would create an iconic masterpiece that we all can identify with in a split second. Though she was not given the credit nor the recognition Valdes’ creation captured the lustful eyes of many men across America.  In 1948, Valdes opened the first African-African boutique in Manhattan which was completely owned by her. The boutique was located on Broadway and West 158th Street in Manhattan. She sold her extravagant dresses to superstars like Dorothy Dandridge, Gladys Knight and Jessye Norman. One of Valdes’ most notable accomplishments and most notable recognitions was designing the original Playboy Bunny costume. Valdes was not your regular costume/fashion designer because she designed and created for the upper echelon of black folks.

Ever worked on something so magnificent that you put your all into it and when it was time to present it you didn’t receive the recognition for it? Well this is the story of Anne Cole Lowe. I’m sure the name doesn’t ring a bell but sit back and I’ll be sure to educate you all on her. Ann Cole Lowe, was the first internationally recognized African American fashion designer who carved out a space for herself through talent alone in the Jim Crow-era United States. Born in the small town of Clayton, Alabama in 1898, Lowe was the great-granddaughter of a skilled seamstress slave and white plantation owner. At 16, her passion was tested when she was challenged to create four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Lizzie Kirkland O’Neal, an assignment her mother had taken on before suddenly passing. Lowe made the dresses and they served as her launching pad. In 1929, at the age of 31, she moved to New York City with $20,000 in savings and a mission to open up her own boutique. In 1953, she was hired to design a wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier (later known to the world as Jackie O) for her wedding to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. Just 10 days before Jacqueline Bouvier became Jackie Kennedy, her wedding dress was destroyed. 10 out of 15 garments for the nuptials—including the bride’s one-of-a-kind look, which had taken two months to make, was destroyed when the Madison Avenue studio they were housed in flooded. Lowe, who was 55 at the time, had been hired to dress Jackie, her mom and the entire wedding party. Lowe pulled it all together and designed a wedding dress—with a portrait neckline and a bouffant skirt for the future First Lady that would go down in the history books as one of the most regal, fashion forward designs ever.

“I design to make people smile,” was the vision of this fashion designer. Even though he was born in one of the most racist states in the Jim Crow-era, he did not allow this to stop him.  Born to a fish monger and a school teacher in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Patrick Kelly graced the runways of Southern churches and the catwalk of Paris, France. “At the black Baptist church on Sunday, the ladies are just as fierce as the ladies at Yves Saint Laurent haute couture shows,” Kelly stated. His dream was often looked at as being something that no one would wear, look at or even give a second thought to wearing. He was the designer that The Supers, Naomi, Iman and Yasmin Le Bon all wanted to walk for and the first American (and black person) to be voted into the prestigious Chambre Syndicale (France’s organization of fashion designers). Quite something for a small town Missippipi boy. Kelly’s passion for fashion was peeked when he flipped through the magazines his grandmother would bring home from the house of the white families she cleaned for. When he looked through the magazines his grandmother had given him, he noticed the absence of black women and when he asked her why, she said, “Nobody has time to design for them.” Kelly went on to design for all women. In the mist of his career Kelly dressed one of the world’s most regal and notable figures, the illustrious Princess Diana. The fashion legend who designed for Iman, Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Madonna and Grace Jones died New Year’s Day in the Winter of 1990. Having just signed a $5 million production contract with the apparel manufacturer Warnaco, he left us with designs that would last for decades. Not only did he impact the legends of his time, he impacted the generations after.