Everyone recognizes Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe as vintage style icons. I can point to a dozen more that most people are aware of: Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, maybe Jean Harlow. Missing from this list are glamorous women of color.
Recently, I’ve become interested in learning more about African American vintage style icons. Of course, this is tied in with the complicated history of race in America. But when we lift back the veil of history, we find a wonderfully rich cultural diversity that’s been hidden from view.
I am currently exploring Black cinema, or what were known as “Race Films”. This was a parallel Hollywood featuring all Black casts, aimed at Black audiences that existed from 1915 through the early 1950’s. Some of these movies were also written, directed and produced by African Americans.
Of course, there were Black performers in mainstream movies of Hollywood’s golden age. They were usually relegated to stereotypical roles, but even within those constraints, there are glimpses of a fabulous and unique style.
Here are just a few avatars of vintage glamor that I’m just now seeing and appreciating. In addition to films, these women found success on Broadway, the Opera, and the bandstand.
What vintage style cues can we learn from them? What elements of fashion and beauty are unique to Black entertainers from the first half of the 20th century?
From L to R: Francine Everett, Sallie Blair, Sybill Lewis,
The Dolly Sisters, Dorothy Dandridge, Gloria Davy
Nina Mae McKinny, Joyce Bryant, Dorothy Van Engle
Marpessa Dawn, Ja Net DuBois, Josephine Premice
Janet White, Muriel Smith, Princess Kouka of the Sudan
Jeni Le Gon, Hilda Simms, Theresa Harris