7 Women of Color Who Revolutionized Fashion in the 1960s-70s

  • Arafat Rahman

Explore modeling history with seven stunning women of color who changed modern high fashion and carved a path for future generations.

1. China Machado

China Machado. Barry Lyndon. Screening and Dinner Party, New York. Photo by Nick Machalaba/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
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.
Warren Hoge and China Machado. Rolling Stones Party, New York. Photo by Pierre Scherman/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
“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.”

2. Pat Cleveland

Model Pat Cleveland wearing a dress from the Stephen Burrows Spring/Summer 1971 collection. Photo by Nick Machalaba/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
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.
Scott Barrie celebrating with models, including Pat Cleveland and Grace Jones, after a showing of his Spring 1974 collection. Photo by Pierre Schermann/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
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.
Pat Cleveland models an outfit from Halston’s RTW Summer 1980 collection. Photo by John Bright/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
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.

4. Beverly Johnson

Model Beverly Johnson. Halston Made-to-Order Fall 1974 Ready to Wear Collection Runway and Ambience. Photo by Fairchild Archive/Shutterstock.
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.
Model Beverly Johnson. 96-piece collection. Includes a group of rainwear from his Halston III division and introduction of Ultrasuede. Photo by Fairchild Archive/Shutterstock.
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.”

5. Bethann Hardison

Bill Kaiserman, Bethann Hardison, Stephen Burrows, and Betsey Johnson. Basile Collection Party, New York. Photo by Dustin Pittman/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
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.”

6. Billie Blair

Billie Blair modeling a floor length gown from the Concept VII RTW Fall 1973 collection. Photo by Ed Azzopardi/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
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.

7. Iman

Model Iman. Bill Blass Fall 1976 Ready to Wear Runway. Photo by Fairchild Archive/Shutterstock.
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.
Iman modeling a dress from Michael Kors Spring 1986 Collection. Photo by Kyle Ericksen/Penske Media/Shutterstock.
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.
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