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WHEN BLACK BECAME BEAUTIFUL (PART 1)

 

By Ronke Adeyemi

 

Friday, July 24, 2009.

 

On Monday July 20, 2009, the lovely Rachel Christie made history by becoming the first Black lady to become Miss England. Although some might state that it is 2009 and too little too late, some would point out how far we have come in this country.

 

The concept of Black Beauty has always been a contentious one, a point comprehensively explored in the documentary, When Black Became Beautiful which was aired on BBC2 in 2004. This three part series looked at the impact African Americans and African Caribbeans have made on fashion and arts and how the world came to accept that beauty is not only skin deep.

 

The series kicked off in 2000 when Iman gathered 15 other Black supermodels to be photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of her book, I Am Iman. The likes of Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Oluchi Onweagba and Noémie Lenoir were all in attendance for the momentous occasion. The rest of the documentary discusses the history of Black beauty from 1940s to the present era.

 

Blonde Ambition

Era -1940s and 19503
Commentators - Diahann Carroll, Mary Wilson, Helen Williams and Dorothea Towles.

 

Part One of that series talked about the impact that Josephine Baker had on French society. It looked at the derogatory images of African American women in films who were either portrayed as mammies or maids. It talked about the social acceptance of lighter skinned Blacks and examined the introduction of hair straightening and the popularity of skin lighteners.

 

In the late 1950s, Ophelia duVour set up her own model agency where she discovered Helen Williams, the first African American model to appear in mainstream magazines. The programme also goes on to talk about the birth of Ebony and how it reflected African American life while on the music scene, Motown artists such as The Supremes were being groomed to perfection in order to conquer the charts.

 

Cornroes, Afros and Anything Goes

Era - 1960s and 1970s
Commentators - Pat Cleveland, Cicely Tyson, Marcia Ann Gillespie and Susan L. Taylor and Beverly Johnson.

Now, this is when Black really became beautiful. Fashion was suddenly very youth orientated which was a complete contrast to the severe look of the 50s. In the 60s
Donyale Luna became the first Black fashion icon and made the cover of Harper's Bazaar as well as becoming the first African American to grace the cover of Brit Vogue. This era would be known as where politics and civil rights merged with fashion and beauty. Sick of being treated like second hand citizens this is where young African Americans decided to stand up and shout out.

 

This lead to the birth of the Black Panthers and the rhetoric, Black and Proud. A Miss Natural Standard of Beauty pageant took place where the aim was to celebrate the beauty of African American features. The contest had a no make and no straight hair policy and was very well received. Cicely Tyson took the natural look onto another level – onto East Side/West Side a popular national TV show where she rocked an afro.

 

The Afro became an expression of Black pride. 1968 saw the creation of Essence, a magazine that put Black women first and celebrated their beauty and presence. This period saw the Afro move from being a political statement to a fashion one. Hence Marsha Hunt being featured in Brit Vogue wearing nothing but her Afro. Finally all forms of Black beauty were established and being represented. Also the catwalk finally caught up as well and in 1974 Beverly Johnson became the first Black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue.

 

The piece continues tomorrow.

 

Ronke Adeyemi is a fashion writer with a background in journalism, marketing and PR.  She blogs at The Musings of Ondo Lady.

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