An Examination of Black British Fashion

Author: Chimwemwe Chirwa

Anti Racist Cumbria examines elements of the history of black British fashion, from the black is beautiful movement to the first black supermodel and the present day.

Until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement the fashion industry operated its own kind of apartheid, which entirely excluded non-white models from its magazines, advertising and catwalk shows.

The Grandassa Models and Kwame Braithwaite:

Photograph by Kwame Braithwaite

In the nineteen-sixties, the age of Ann-Margret and Jean Shrimpton, the photographer and activist Kwame Brathwaite co-founded a group called the Grandassa Models. (“Grandassa” is taken from the term “Grandassaland,” which the black nationalist Carlos Cooks had used to refer to Africa.)

“We said, ‘We’ve got to do something to make the women feel proud of their hair, proud of their blackness,’” Brathwaite recalled.

 

Naturally ’68 photo shoot, featuring Grandassa Models and founding members of Ajass. Photograph by Kwame Brathwaite

 

Kwame Brathwaite, a self-portrait, 1964.

The models’ skin tones ranged from light brown to dark brown, and they had full lips, natural hairstyles, and a variety of body shapes. Black is beautiful is a phrase that both Brathwaite and the Grandassa Models popularised.

 

 

Donyale Luna (August 31, 1945 – May 17, 1979)

Widely considered to be the first black supermodel, Donyale was first discovered in Detroit her hometown on the same year the Civil Rights Act was introduced. David McCabe a photographer came across Luna in the street and was in awe, ‘She was so tall and so slender, and had the most incredible bone structure.’

He invited the 18-year-old to New York, where she was introduced to Nancy White. White was so impressed by the young beauty that she immediately had her sketched by an illustrator, and the result ran on the cover of the January 1965 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, the first ever to feature a black model.

Luna for Harpers Bazaar 1965

Luna was also the first black woman to appear on British Vogue in the following year and she became a pioneer of her time to enable more diverse beauty paradigms to break through.

She was hailed as an exotic symbol of resistance, a mythical beauty often characterised as “Nefertiti reborn”, but outside the art world, she was continually faced with a barrage of sustained racialised criticism. Magazine readers threatened to rescind their subscriptions on account of her appearance. Realising that her life in America would always be defined by the colour of her skin, she relocated to Europe and reached superstardom within a year. As a creative visionary, artists, in all senses of the word, were continually drawn to her. Acting as a muse for Andy Warhol, David Bailey, and Salvador Dali, Luna from Detroit soon became the most in-demand model globally.

Luna for Harpers Bazaar 1965

 

Naomi Campbell (born 22 May 1970)

Recognised as one of 5 of the biggest supermodels of the 80’s and 90’s. Campbell became the first black British model to appear on the cover of British Vogue in 1987 and French Vogue in 1988. She struggled with discrimination but fellow models Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista (right) stand up for her. According to Campbell, Turlington told Dolce & Gabbana, “If you don’t use Naomi, you don’t get us.”

Campbell’s first shoot for Vogue
Black British Fashion icon Naomi Campbell at her charity fashion show
Black British Fashion icon Campbell at her charity fashion show, Fashion For Relief

Campbell is also responsible for an incredible amount of fundraising and charity work in South Africa and across the globe. She began charity work with Nelson Mandela in 1993, and in 1997 he named her “Honorary Granddaughter” for endless activism.

 

In 2005, she established Fashion for Relief and hosted its first charity fashion show to raise funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Since its conception in 2005, Fashion for Relief has presented shows in New York, London, Cannes, Moscow, Mumbai and Dar es Salaam, and has raised millions of dollars for various causes.

Marcus Rashford (born 31 October 1997)

Hailing from Wythenshawe, Manchester appeared on British Vogue’s cover last month. The September issue of Vogue is usually viewed as the most prestigious of the year. The Manchester United footballers feature on the special edition ‘activism now’ was shot by Misan Harriman, who is the first black male photographer to shoot any cover of British Vogue in the publication’s 104-year history. He appeared alongside model and mental health campaigner Adwoa Aboah.

Rashford and Adwoa Aboah for British Vogue September 2020 (British Vogue/Misan Harriman)

Rashford has established himself as a key activist regarding the black lives matter movement in the UK which sparked earlier this year with the death of George Floyd. Speaking to Vogue for the issue discussing the open letter on the granting of free food vouchers for the poorest British families over the summer, Rashford recalled:

“I’m by no means a politician but I had a voice and a platform that could be used to at least ask the questions. If I didn’t put myself out there and say, ‘This is not OK and it needs to change,’ I would have failed my 10-year-old self.”

 

Black British Fashion and more gracing Vogue covers
The black activists that feature in activism now (British Vogue/Misan Harriman).