They don’t yet get the Vogue covers they deserve but fashion has always been full of black men and women that ooze sophistication and fashion sense. We present ten icons who made history in style.
EARTHA KITT: She was, according to Orson Welles, “the most exciting woman in the world.” Eartha Kitt was born out of rape on a cotton plantation and endured a troublesome childhood, ostracised for her distinctive mix of black, white and Cherokee blood. As an entertainer she transformed herself with furs, jewels and slinky dresses into the embodiment of glamour. From her feline features to her sensual purr, Kitt was the ultimate self-aware sex kitten.
NAOMI SIMS: Before Naomi Campbell there was Naomi Sims, the world’s first black supermodel. The rare black models that had found fame before her (see Josephine Baker) had been cast as wild and exotic, but Sims always appeared as an elegant professional, dressed sharply – and expensively – with her hair slicked-back into a ballerina bun. Sims’ appearance on the covers of Life and Ladies’ Home Journal in the late sixties marked a victory for the Black is Beautiful movement.
ANGELA DAVIS: Angela Davis would probably roll her eyes at being called a ‘style icon’. The radical activist derides the fact that she is ‘remembered as a hairdo’ but her afro was iconic of the Black Panther movement. Davis used style for political expression and wore her afro as a symbol of black pride and resilience. When she became the third woman ever to hit the FBI’s Most Wanted list, she was pictured with a halo of hair on protest posters and badges across America.
JIMI HENDRIX: Jimi Hendrix crossed the racial boundaries of the Rock’n’Roll music industry. He dressed like a vagabond, hijacking inspiration wherever he found it. He scoured London vintage boutiques for military jackets and had African-inspired stage costumes custom-made. Crowned with wildly curled hair, his look was flamboyant and psychedelically multicultural, with fringed waistcoats, feather boas, Moroccan beads, hippie badges, bandanas and wide-brimmed hats. His style was as mad as his music and challenged 1960s stereotypes of black male musicians.
GRACE JONES: Queen of cool, Grace Jones was rocking show-stopping avant-garde costumes before Lady Gaga was even born. But it’s her new wave androgyny that really secures her status as a style icon. Jones took ‘80s power-dressing to the max with angular suits and extreme shoulder pads in striking combination with her severe hair cut, lean physique and glisteningly dark skin. She’s also possibly the coolest Bond Girl ever – see A View to a Kill for the definition of ‘fierce’.
She was, according to Orson Welles, “the most exciting woman in the world”
WILLI SMITH: Willi Smith designed clothes ‘for the people’ and spearheaded the black ‘street couture’ movement of the ‘80s with relaxed silhouettes accented with unusual colour schemes. His designs made their mark on pop culture: he designed the costumes for Spike Lee’s film School Daze and Mary Jane Watson’s wedding dress in the Spider Man comic strip. Arguably the most successful black designer in history, his company WilliWear was worth $25 million at the time of his tragically early death from AIDS in 1987.
OZWALD BOATENG: Ozwald Boateng revolutionized Savile Row tailoring for a new generation. Entirely self-taught a tailor, Boateng coined the term ‘bespoke couturier’ to describe his art. His designs inject the traditional suit with sharp cuts, playful details and eye-catching use of colour. Boateng’s work has been recognised with an OBE, a retrospective at the V&A Museum and a traffic-stopping fashion show on Savile Row. He’s even an advisor to the Ghanaian Ashanti king – a total Black British legend.
ANDRÉ BENJAMIN: Outkast’s André Benjamin has morphed from cartoon pimp into dapper gent and it’s been one hell of a journey. Benjamin’s current look takes hip hop’s fondness for preppy style to extremes: he takes inspiration from The Great Gatsby and old folks in his neighbourhood, playing with traditional cuts and fabrics in clashing colour schemes. He’s been named ‘Best Dressed Man’ by Esquire and recently launched his own clothing line, Benjamin Bixby.
MICHELLE OBAMA: From a Vogue cover to her penchant for American designers like Calvin Klein and Narciso Rodriguez, Michelle Obama is a fashion icon. Her inaugural gown is credited with launching the career of young designer Jason Wu and there are now calls for Obama to cast some fashion fortune on African-American designers. Obama’s ladylike classics are given a cheeky twist with bold colours, infamously bare limbs and gobstopper pearls that are anything but ‘wifely’. Forget Jackie O, America has a new First Lady in the fashion stakes.
JANELLE MONÁE: Janelle Monáe is leading the charge of experimental black musicians and fashionistas. In homage to her working class parents, she has cultivated her own ‘uniform’ which harks back to black jazz performers of old. Her tuxedo, brogues and afro-Mohawk are also deliberately gender-bending and challenge the usual ‘bikini and booty’ role of black women in music videos. Monáe says she has a responsibility to ”help redefine what it looks like to be a woman.”