The New Black: Out of Africa

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

By Ronke Adeyemi
Saturday, July 25, 2009.
Era – 1975 to 2004 Commentators – Mikki Taylor, Marcia Ann Gillespie, Susan L. Taylor, Naomi Campbell and Iman1975 witnessed the explosion of Iman onto the America fashion scene, and boy did she cause an uproar! Some African Americans opposed her fanfare stating that African American women could never be perceived as beautiful and in order to find an example of Black beauty it had to be brought in from elsewhere. Hence, the controversial and I think unfair acidic comment from Marcia Ann Gillespie, Editor in Chief at Essence who described Iman as looking like she was dipped in chocolate.
Total ignorance I say as all she had to do was nip over to countries like Sudan and Ethiopia and she would have seen men and women with features just like Iman. However, this decade and the one after saw a series of breakthrough by Black men and women on both sides of the Atlantic. And twenty six years ago in 1983, Vanessa Williams made history by becoming the first African American to be crowned Miss America.
We saw groundbreaking ads from Benetton that featured people of all ages from all nationalities and skin colours. I used to detest these ads because I thought they were cheesy but when I look back at it, these adverts were actually very pivotal in the way commercials are created these days. I mean where would Gap be if not for Benetton? So from embracing natural Black beauty the 1980s moved onto embracing unconventional looking Blacks such as Mr T, Whoopi Goldberg and Grace Jones.
The 1990s was when Naomi Campbell really exploded onto the scene, Veronica Webb became the first black supermodel to win an exclusive contract for a major cosmetics company and Ford models signed their first Black model. Tyra Banks was seen on the cover of the coveted swimwear issue of Sport Illustrated.
Fast forward to the late 1990s with hip hop now in the mainstream it was also leading the way in beauty ideals. Enter Tyson Beckford who was an instant hit after landing a cover with Source magazine. He landed a contract with Ralph Lauren and helped to change the traditional rules of advertising.
If Naomi was one of the supermodel of the late 1980s then Alex Wek represented the breed of the 1990s. A lot of fuss was made over her ‘traditional’ African features and she appeared on glossy magazines all around the world. She never made the cover of Brit Vogue though, why? Because according to Alexandra Shulman, Ms Wek was too simply too skinny. O.K!
Since the 1950s, the paradigm has shifted and editors of magazines like Vogue no longer dictate the ideals of beauty because it is now directed by pop culture. Now we have had an all Black Italian Vogue and the magazine has repeated the all Black theme but this time have used Black Barbie dolls instead of models.
I absolutely LOVED this series, I missed it when it was aired the first time but I managed to get a copy from my local library. It was so wonderful to see an in depth look at the way Black men and women have been represented in fashion, film, TV, magazines, music and sport. How we have transcended from being one dimensional, broken through the barriers and now we are in a place where all shades all of the spectrum are being represented. Tyra Banks sums it up beautifully.“Right now you have Ashanti, Mary J. Blige and Beyonce and it is great because they can all co-exist.” When Black Became Beautiful was produced by Tim Pritchard Productions. Click here to read the production notes on the documentary.You can listen to Chantal Benjamin, a consultant on the programme and The Guardian journo, Hannah Pool discussing the show on Woman’s Hour here.PS: While we are on the subject of beauty, I am part of a group of wonderful women who are organisng an event called You’re Beautiful, Woman which celebrates Black beauty in all forms. There will be talks, presentations, pampering sessions and workshops. It takes place on Saturday 15th August at Highgate Newtown Community Centre in North London from 10.00am to 6.00pm. Tickets are £5. Please come down to suppport. For more details please go to our website here.
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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