Explore modeling history with seven stunning women of color who changed modern high fashion and carved a path for future generations.
When Pat Cleveland was growing up, she looked at fashion magazines and didn’t find anyone who looked like her. Early in her career, when she traveled to the American South as part of the Ebony Fashion Fair, she endured threats of violence from members of the Ku Klux Klan. She and her fellow models were attacked while trying to use the bathroom.
Still, Cleveland persevered. In the 1960s, she and other women of color made history by becoming the supermodels of a new generation. They revolutionized fashion, but they also helped reshape the country and the world. By the 1970s, the model Iman had redefined what “the girl next door” looked like in America.
Let’s take a look back at some of the iconic supermodels whose beauty, strength, and courage made a permanent mark in magazines, in our imagination, and in the pages of history. “The world has changed,” Cleveland told Harper’s Bazaar a couple of years ago. “We’re all part of one world now. Fashion has to be for everyone.”
Sometimes called “the first non-white supermodel,” this mixed-race, Shanghai-born model made waves in 1959, when she appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. As the story goes, the magazine initially debated featuring the now-famous photographs, but Richard Avedon threatened to quit if they didn’t run. The photographer later called her “probably the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Machado ultimately went on to serve as the magazine’s Senior Fashion Editor and Fashion Director. She returned to modeling at the age of 81, appearing in campaigns for fashion brands like Barneys and Cole Haan.
“China Machado was one of the first great pioneers in the firmament of haute couture,” fashion journalist André Leon Talley told The New York Times in 2016. “Internationally, she paved the way for diversity and other races, as well as paving the way for the rise of the black model in print and on the runway.”
This supermodel got her start after a chance encounter with Carrie Donovan, assistant fashion editor at Vogue, on a subway platform. She was a teenager on her way to school. Unfortunately, Cleveland faced an uphill battle with racism and prejudice.
In the late 1960s, Eileen Ford of Ford Models told her she doubted she’d ever make it in the business due to the color of her skin. Of course, Cleveland proved her wrong, and her presence on magazine covers marked a change in the nation.
She went onto work with the preeminent designers, editors, and photographers of the time—Karl Lagerfeld, Halston, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior, Diana Vreeland, Guy Bourdin, Richard Avedon, Andy Warhol, etc.—and on several occasions, she also posed for Salvador Dali.
Sadly, Cleveland was diagnosed with colon cancer earlier this year, shortly after modeling in Paris Fashion Week. Designers, stylists, photographers, and fellow models rallied around her to show their support—a powerful testament to her enduring influence.
3. Naomi Sims
Headshot of African American model Naomi Sims wearing a tie-neck, printed chiffon blouse. Her hair is pulled back in a bun. Article title: “The Accessories – The Beauty Part: Black Gray.” Photo by Harry Morrison/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
In 1968, Ladies’ Home Journal published its first cover featuring a Black model. Her name was Naomi Sims, and more than forty years later, The New York Times would call it “a consummate moment of the Black is Beautiful movement.”
Portrait of model Naomi Sims seated on a chaise lounge with her dog laying at her feet. Article title: “Treatment: Black Beauty: What’s it All About.” Photo by Nick Machalaba/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
Early in her career, Sims had trouble finding representation, with more than one agency turning her away for being “too dark.” Instead of allowing them to dissuade her, however, she’d reached out directly to photographers, landing her first major appearance in The Times fashion supplement.
Model Naomi Sims wearing a white silk pantsuit and holding a drink at a party hosted by Tony Perkins celebrating both the 1,000th performance of the play Equus and Perkins’ 45th birthday on April 4th, 1977. Article title: “Eye View: Horsing Around at 45.” Photo by Abner Symons/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
Sims went on to become a prominent author and businesswoman, serving at the helm of a multimillion-dollar wig company. She also mentored the next supermodel on our list, Beverly Johnson. “Naomi was the first,” the designer Halston said in 1974. “She broke down all the social barriers.”
When this model first started, the owner of her agency told her she’d never be on a cover. But growing up during the Civil Rights Movement had helped shape Johnson into the fearless woman she was, and despite the naysayers, she didn’t give up.
In 1974, Johnson didn’t just land a cover; she landed the cover of American Vogue. She was the first woman of color in the fashion magazine’s 80-plus-year history to do so. “Beverly’s cover was history,” André Leon Talley would recall on the 40th anniversary. “It was groundbreaking.”
Since then, she’s made a career in business, acting, and music, and of course, she’s still an icon. “Once a supermodel, always a supermodel,” she told Ebony in 2017. When Tyler Mitchell became the first African-American photographer to shoot a cover for American Vogue, she saw the movement she helped start come full circle. “This is our Oscar,” she told NPR. “This is our gold medal.”
This model/activist was first “discovered” by the fashion designer Willi Smith in New York. The year was 1967, and at the time, she was working in the Garment District. Looking back, she says she got her “big break” when she delivered a dress to the merchandising executive Bernie Ozer, telling him, “If you really want to have a great show, you’ll have me in it.”
She was onto something. After her time in front of the camera, Hardison went on to build her own management company, where she mentored a new generation of models. In the 1980s, Hardison turned her focus to activism, and she continues to advocate for diversity in the industry today.
When asked in 2016 whether she saw a connection between social movements and fashion activism, she responded, “Yes, of course! The fact of the matter is that everything is consciousness. This conversation is important.”
Known for her “dancelike strut,” this supermodel made history as part of The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1973, a face-off between American and French designers. Blair, Bethann Hardison, Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, and Iman were among the ten women of color included among the 36 American models—a landmark number.
A year later, People dubbed her “New York’s newest superstar model” and “this season’s standard of female beauty.” Halston chimed in, adding, “She is more like a starlet than a mannequin. I love her walk, her fantastic body, her dramatic delivery.”
This model’s career took off in 1975 after the prominent American photographer Peter Beard spotted her out and about in the streets of Kenya. At the time, she was twenty years old, a Somali refugee studying political science at university. Beard asked her if she’d ever been photographed, and, she later admitted, she “had no idea what he was talking about.” She asked for $8,000 for her first modeling job—the price of her tuition.
The next year, Iman appeared in Vogue, and she soon drew the attention of leading designers of the time, including Yves Saint Laurent, who famously dubbed her his “dream woman.” In the following decades, she would grow to become one of the most influential supermodels in the world, establishing herself as both a businesswoman and a philanthropist.
Calvin Klein and Iman attend Rosalynn Carter’s fashion show and tea at the request of fashion enthusiast Shigeko Ohira, wife of Japan’s prime minister on May 4, 1979 in Washington, DC. Article title: “Eye.” Photo by Guy Delort/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
She has since spoken out about her experience as a refugee. “My parents left with one picture of each of us,” she told The Enough Project in 2010. “One picture.” As an adult, she would collaborate with her generation’s greatest photographers—Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and many more—and her pictures would grace the covers of magazines around the world.
Want more modern history in images? Check out these photo tours:
A Look at Ralph Lauren’s 50 Years of Unforgettable Fashion
10 Facts About Legendary Fashion Designer Yves Saint Laurent
Documenting LGBTQ Rights with Kay Tobin Lahusen and Barbara Gittings
Marc Jacobs’ Runway Evolution: Demonstrating the Power of a Fashion Photography Archive
10 Pop Music Icons Photographed by Dezo Hoffmann
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