Of Another Fashion

An alternative archive of the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color

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This gorgeous photo of a 1963 Harlem fashion show is one of the many images on display at the soon-to-open exhibition, Posing Beauty In African American Culture which has been traveling throughout the country over the last year or so. The exhibition is curated by Deborah Willis, Professor and Chair of the Photography and Imaging Department at NYU. Willis’ work is amazing and this exhibition looks fabulous - if you’re in the Los Angeles area, do check it out. If you’re not in the area and can’t wait for the exhibition to open near you, you can buy the  book by the same name. The New York Times raves:

With “Posing Beauty,” Willis has for­ever changed the conversation about beauty in American life. After centuries of exclusion and segregation in which African-­American beauty existed on the margins of the culture, Willis offers readers a thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the relationship of beauty and power. She invites us to marvel at the glamour and elegance contained in the photographs, and in the process instructs us on how to expand the definition of beauty within our national imagination.

To expand the definition of beauty within our national imagination. An exhibition after my own heart.

Photo credits: Top photo by Leonard Freed taken in 1963, bottom photo “Harlem, 1970” by Anthony Barboza.


In the 1950s, about 10 years after Japanese Americans were released from internment camps, there was something of a renaissance of Japanese American fashion especially in California. Designers like Kow Kaneko, Sadohara, and Ryie Yoshizawa (see here and here) had their own labels, their own shops, and solo fashion shows. Although they used mostly Japanese American models like Michi Kumamoto, Mary Kitano, and Lily Shitara, it appears that their clientele was mostly white. According to the Japanese American National Museum, Yoshizawa also opened the Modern School of Fashion. (To see more posts of fashion models, click the “models” tag below.)

In this photo, fashion designer and store owner Kow Kaneko presents her designs to a white client in her store in Pasadena, California (25 November 1955).

Photograph by Toyo Miyatake, from the Rafu Shimpo collection at the Japanese American National Museum.

Two models in gowns designed by Kow Kaneko for a fashion show for Ladies’ Night at the Nisei Veterans reunion pose for a publicity shot. They’re standing in front of Kaneko’s studio in Pasadena, California, 22 July 1958. The models are Etsu Andow (in the dark gown) and Masako Hirano (in the light colored gown).

Photograph by Toyo Miyatake, from the Rafu Shimpo collection at the Japanese American National Museum.

The Japanese American fashion designer Sadohara (L) is seen here with two models at a fashion show in the Statler Hotel, Los Angeles, California (13 September 1956). The woman on the far right is the designer Riye Yoshizawa (see here and here) who helped open the Modern School of Fashion.

Photograph by Toyo Miyatake, from the Rafu Shimpo collection at the Japanese American National Museum.

This photo shows designer Iris Teragawa (seated) with an Asian American fashion model in California. It’s difficult to tell in this picture but the the model, wearing a suit with four pocket flaps, is standing next to a winter white Christmas tree. (7 December 1961).

Photograph by Toyo Miyatake, from the Rafu Shimpo collection at the Japanese American National Museum.

These women are preparing backstage for a benefit fashion show called “Dream in Silhouette” sponsored by the Outdoor Life and Health Association and featuring Don Loper designs and Eadward hairstyles. The fashion show took place at the landmark Ciro’s nightclub on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, California on April 23, 1950.

Mary Kitano (with the straight bob and jewel stones on her cheek) and Lily Shitara (with the curly hair and getting her lipstick touched up by an unidentified African American makeup artist) were popular professional Asian American models.

Photograph by Toyo Miyatake, from the Rafu Shimpo collection at the Japanese American National Museum.

For LIFE magazine (17 October 1969), Richard Avedon shot this photograph of Tamara Dobson (1944-2006). Dobson would later become famous as Cleopatra Jones after Naomi Sims turned down the role. The caption reads:

Tamara Dobson, 21 and six feet tall, was signed by an agency her first day in New York and in two weeks had her first big job, a TV commercial. Six months later she returned to school in Baltimore, where her father works in the post office and her mother has a beauty shop. After graduating from the Maryland Art Institute, she was introduced to Richard Avedon who shot the Vogue photograph [above]. Tamara doesn’t care much about clothes and strolls around in turtleneck and corduroys [below]. She neither smokes nor drinks but ruefully admits that she is wild about food. “That’s for somebody like a stevedore, not a model.”

From LIFE magazine (17 October 1969), model Tamara Dobson off duty in her preferred street clothes.

From LIFE magazine (17 October 1969), Elizabeth Christobel Edith Bagaaya,  former princess of Toro, New York City fashion model, the first female attorney of Uganda, and, later, Uganda’s high commissioner to Nigeria. Wikipedia offers a brief overview of her storied life.

The LIFE magazine caption reads:

Elizabeth of Toro is the daughter of a king - the late king of Toro, one of the four kingdoms of Uganda. After receiving a law degree from Cambridge University, she went home to become the first woman barrister of East Africa. But when her father died and her brother was dethroned in a revolution in 1967, Elizabeth returned to London to model. She came to New York last year to do four pages for Vogue, and decided to stay on. Now she is exotically at home in a Sutton Place apartment (above) which she decorated with zebra skin and Andy Warhol’s silk-screen Marilyn Monroe… “My image is no longer that of a princess,” Elizabeth says. “I am a girl. A model.”

From LIFE magazine (17 October 1969), this is of course Naomi Sims (1948-2009) often described as the first African American supermodel and the first African American model to be featured on the cover of a major women’s magazine (Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1968, see below). In addition to writing several books on modeling, health, and beauty, Sims famously turned down the title role of Cleopatra Jones (1973) because she was appalled by what she believed was a racist script.

The caption reads:

Read More

From LIFE magazine (17 October 1969), Ford Agency model Charlene Dash is preparing for an assignment.

The caption reads:

Charlene is lighter-skinned than the models on the following pages, a fact that can influence the jobs she gets. “I might get a bit more catalogue work than a darker model,” she says, “because catalogues are sent out West and down South and into all those little old weird places. But if somebody is doing a spread featuring black models, I probably would get hidden away. In the end it all balances out.”

From LIFE magazine (17 October 1969), former model and Director of the Black Beauty modeling agency Betty Foray (seated, center) is shown here talking to ad agency account executives in the offices of the Black Beauty modeling agency.

These are the first two title pages of the LIFE magazine article on the rise of Black fashion models (17 October 1969). 

The caption reads:

You see before you what may well be the most persuasive demonstration of successful black power ever assembled. If these 39 models, employed by a new agency called Black Beauty, were all to work an eight-hour day, their combined bill would be $16,000, a handsome fee by any standard and a vast change from even a few years ago. This spectacular breakthrough - part of the new emphasis on black pride and equality - was brought about by advertisers and fashion arbiters who are finding out that black is not only beautiful but good business.

In the 1950s, about 10 years after Japanese Americans were released from internment camps, there was something of a renaissance of Japanese American fashion especially in California. Designers like Kow Kaneko, Sadohara, and Ryie Yoshizawa (see here and here) had their own labels, their own shops, and solo fashion shows. Although they used mostly Japanese American models like Michi Kumamoto, Mary Kitano, and Lily Shitara, it appears that their clientele was mostly white. According to the Japanese American National Museum, Yoshizawa also opened the Modern School of Fashion.

The women in the image above are not identified, unfortunately. All that’s known is that it was taken in Toyo Miyatake’s studio in California in 1956 and that it shows a Japanese American woman (possibly a designer) in a patterned mandarin-collared dress holding a bolt of material wrapped around a model.

The photographer, Miyatake, is best known for smuggling a camera lens into Manzanar internment camp and building a camera body from wood. (Recall that cameras were considered contraband in the camps.) His secret photographs documenting camp life are now the subject of several books and a documentary.

Photograph from the Rafu Shimpo collection at the Japanese American National Museum.

This ad appeared in Black women’s magazines in 1969. The copy reads:

These are the girls of Black Beauty—New York’s newest model agency. They weren’t born models. Every girl learned how to coax every lash, every pore into being its most beautiful. Shouldn’t you share the beauty routine that helps make their skin so flawless? Wash with Noxema, as they do, instead of soap. Noxema softens as it cleans. Fights dryness. Rinses clean. Medicates to help clear surface blemishes with an exhilarating tingle. What a way to wash! What a way for girls to look and feel sensational!

** The director of the Black Beauty modeling agency was former model Betty Foray, a white (blonde) woman. According to a Life magazine article on Black models in 1969, the agency chose a white woman as its head in order to make white clients comfortable with talking about race.