Long before black models began gracing runways for the likes of Christian Dior and Balmain, the 1950s proved revolutionary, all thanks to exotic beauty Dorothea Towles Church, the very first successful black model in Paris.
Dorothea T. Church, successfully broke racial barriers at a time when predominant beauty standards favored white models.
Born Dorthy Mae Towles, July 26, 1922, in the United States, the daughter of Thomas Elsworth Towles, a mechanic, and Anabella Clark, one of four siblings, including Lois Towles – who became an internationally renowned concert pianist, in 1943, after the death of her mother, she moved to Los Angeles, California, where she worked as a clerk, secretary, and cashier, until 1945 when she began teaching biology and drama at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles.
In the summer of the same year, in 1945, Dorothea enrolled at the University of Southern California where she began studying drama and speech alongside attending the Dorothy Farrier Charm and Modeling School where she was the first black student. With eyes set on the modeling world in addition to her work as a teacher, she launched her modeling career in the 1940s, appearing in charity fashion shows.
In 1949, she accompanied her sister Lois who sang in the Fisk University concert choir during its European tour. While in Paris for vacation, Church got hired by Christian Dior to replace one of his regular models who was out on vacation. This led to her spending the next five years in France, modeling for Jacques Fath, Elsa Schiaparelli, Pierre Balmain, and Robert Piguet. Her career witnessed a boom and in April 1953, she graced the cover of Jet magazine, but upon her return to the United States in 1954, despite her success in Europe, she struggled to find work in America as designers were reluctant to hire a black model.
Designer Pierre Balmain refused to allow her to borrow his designs for an Ebony Magazine shoot out of concern that his white clientele would be offended and that the magazine’s readership would not be interested in purchasing his creations. She faced lots of segregation modeling in the US as compared to Paris.
“Paris was the complete opposite of Texas,” she said. “They treated you like a queen. I was not considered black, African-American or a Negro, I was just an American. I had a ball” Dorothea had said, reflecting on her experience in Paris in the early 1950s in a 2004 interview for Women’s Wear .
In her 1998 book Black and Beautiful, author Barbara Summers quotes Church about her celebrity status in Paris at the beginning of the 1950s: “I got invited out all the time. I was the only black model in Europe and I just thought I was an international person.”
In 1954 she toured black colleges, showcasing her collection of Paris haute couture, with her fashion shows serving as fund-raisers for the sorority to which she belonged, Alpha Kappa Alpha as well as civil rights societies.
“My show had a great influence on American black women dressing differently and feeling good about themselves.” Her vanity was minimal: “I used to take the attitude that, this isn’t about me. I just represent all the girls like me.”
While black media like Ebony showed support, white photographers ignored her. She later signed as a model with the Grace del Marco agency in New York City and worked as a fashion commentator for radio station WOV.
“The white world might be afraid of our beauty,” the trailblazer was also quoted as saying.
The groundbreaking Dorothea Towles Church, born July 26, 1922; died July 7 2006 at age 83. Her legacy lives on.