Decade after decade, fashion evolves, inspires influences, and tells stories of our identity. To celebrate Black History Month, we’re digging a little deeper into some of the most extraordinary Black fashion icons in modern history. Included here are African American women and men who have changed the face of fashion, set trends on the street, the runway, the silver screen, and have become pioneers in Black excellence using their talent, creativity, and passion.
What is Black History Month?
Established in the United States in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month initially started as a week of celebrations highlighting African American history. By 1970 it had expanded into a month-long affair and since 1976, every US President has appointed February as Black History Month. In the UK we do the same, and Black History Month gives us a chance to celebrate the Caribbean and African American culture – from politics to grassroots and music to fashion – and salute the phenomenal contribution Black men and women have made to society and continue to make.
Black History Month: The Fashion Icons
The epitome of soul and style, Josephine Baker was a trailblazer when it came to fashion, dance, music and comedy. Born in St. Louis in 1906, she sashayed and sang her way from Harlem to Paris and was an icon of the roaring twenties. One of the most beautiful African women in the world, France embraced her as their own and nicknamed her the Creole Goddess. Though she was renowned for her jewel-encrusted headdresses, seductive clothes and chain bralettes, she also served for the Red Cross and the French Resistance and was a civil rights activist. To pay tribute to the star, Beyoncé recreated one of Josephine Baker's most iconic outfits, the rubber banana skirt, for the 2006 Fashion Rocks concert.
A silver screen pin-up in the 1940s and '50s and a triple threat actress, singer and dancer, Dorothy Dandridge wore cigarette pants, off the shoulder tops and form-fitting pencil skirts like no one else. She won a Golden Globe for her performance in Porgy and Bess and was the first female African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Carmen Jones.
Lead singer of The Supremes, Motown Queen and diva extraordinaire, Diana Ross has been killing it in the style stakes since the 1960s. From her glamorous full-length gowns to her beehive wigs and bellbottoms, Ross is an enduring Black fashion icon and global superstar. Her style remains influential to this day.
A member of the legendary Rat Pack, a tap-dancing sensation, the first Black person on the cover of GQ and a star of the original Oceans 11, Sammy Davis Jr. wore slimline suits, tuxedo shirts and slender ties with aplomb. His slicked-back hairstyle, thread-thin moustache and air of well-tailored casual elegance made him a fashion icon of the 1960s. He was a huge supporter of Martin Luther King and if you’re looking for great Black History Month quotes, here’s one from Sammy Davis Jr. - 'I would give him my good eye. That’s what I think of Dr King. He’s one of the great men of our time. They should retire the Nobel Peace Prize with his name on it.'
Donyale Luna was not only the first African American model to have a mannequin inspired by her look but the first to grace the cover of British Vogue back in 1966. Her beauty was ethereal, she hung out with Andy Warhol and was a muse of Salvador Dalí. Even though she died at just 32, she still inspires and influences celebrities today. For the 50th anniversary edition of Essence, Zendaya recreated one of Donyale Luna’s most famous looks, wearing a floor-length long-sleeve knit dress by The Gigi Hunter Collection.
Donna Summer, the five-time Grammy Award-winning disco queen, made sultry fashion choices and had sweet vocals to match. From feathers and sequins to leopard print and flowing gowns, Summer was a chameleon and a versatile fashion icon. Her influence on disco, pop, and electronic music shaped the 1970s, and without her, the decade would look dramatically different.
We couldn’t celebrate Black History Month women without honouring the fierce and androgynous style of Grace Jones. Her Afro-futurist image, razor-sharp cheekbones and cropped geometric hairstyles broke boundaries in the fashion world and introduced us to a style that created cultural conversation.
Born in Somalia, discovered in Nairobi, married to David Bowie and a muse of Yves Saint Laurent (he devoted his ‘African Queen’ collection to her), Iman hit the catwalk in the late 1970s. In 1994 she founded her eponymous beauty brand, catering to multi-cultural women with skin tones ranging from warm olive to deep ebony brown. To this day, she runs the shade-inclusive global cosmetics company.
Thanks to a lithe figure and feline features, Naomi Campbell became one of the original '90s supermodels and has walked the runway for designers including Versace, Chanel and Vivienne Westwood. She was the first British Black model to be featured on the cover of British Vogue and is the honorary granddaughter of Nelson Mandela. It’s no secret that Campbell set the fashion world ablaze, but she has also made a name for herself through her philanthropic work. She founded Fashion For Relief in 2005, a charity that has raised millions to help rebuild after the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. An ardent supporter of South African women and men, she is currently working to make lesser-known fashion brands from the continent more visible in the west.
We lost the ground breaking André Leon Talley in January this year, but his extraordinary work in the fashion industry will never be forgotten. Larger than life, a lover of lavish billowing capes and a sartorial force to be reckoned with, Leon Talley was a hugely admired fashion journalist and the first African American creative director of American Vogue. He styled US President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama championed diversity in the fashion industry and became a New York Times bestseller with his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches.
The first male and first Black editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Ghanaian-born Edward Enninful is one of the most influential men in fashion. Responsible for the revival of a flagging Vogue, his September 2019 cover - Forces for Change - was guest-edited by Meghan Markle whilst his February 2022 issue, celebrating Black History Month, features an All-African cover of models including Adut Akech. He stands for the real world – size, race, gender, economic background – and that’s what makes him a true fashion icon.
An Estée Lauder global brand ambassador, a front cover star of British Vogue's Black History Month issue and a runway model for Chanel and Valentino, South Sudanese refugee Adut Akech is fast becoming a beauty and fashion icon of her generation. She might be an in-demand catwalk model with numerous high profile campaigns under her belt but Akech is much more than just a supermodel in the making; she also works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and uses her platform to advocate for refugees.
Emmy award-winning actress Zendaya makes fashion icon status for her bold, inspiring looks and her all-black glam squad. In 2021 she became the youngest person to win the CFDA Fashion Icon award, and if that’s not enough, she is also the face of Valentino and has her own fashion collection with Tommy Hilfiger.
Daughter of Diana Ross, a sparkling TV personality and Dr Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish, Tracie Ellis Ross loves to wear couture and we love seeing her in it. CEO of Pattern Beauty, she’s been quoted as saying, 'Let your clothes be your superhero cape, allowing you to be the best you can be.'
Throughout the years, there have been many Black Fashion Icons who have influenced, inspired and made an impact. During Black History Month and beyond, we celebrate them as style symbols and visionaries that are always worth remembering.
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