The Hidden Message of Style

Her chic mother taught her that fashion mattered. What went unspoken: For a woman of color in 1950s America, dressing well told the world, “I’m here” 

by Margo Jefferson
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Margo Jefferson

My favorite model was Dorothea Towles. She’d gone to college (as we were expected to do); she’d married a dentist (we were supposed to marry professionals); she’d decided to follow her sister (who was studying to be a concert pianist) to Paris. And there she’d fulfilled our wild secret fantasies of Josephine Baker crossed with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face: She’d become a model, first at the House of Dior, then at Schiaparelli and Balmain.

I admired her, I envied her, but I didn’t worship her as I worshipped Suzy Parker. Dorothea was in Ebony, not Vogue. My white friends didn’t know who she was. Diana Vreeland didn’t have to know or care.

Did Dorothea turn her back on her people? Certainly not! In 1954 she returned to the U.S. and barnstormed the country with a trunk of her own haute couture clothes, organizing all-black fashion shows for all-black sororities and charities. Jetloved to chronicle her flamboyant doings: “Model Dorothea Towles created a sensation when she strolled into a white fur shop in Birmingham and asked to rent $10,000 worth of furs for the Alpha Kappa Alpha fashion show.”

Please note that Dorothea Towles returned to America the year the Supreme Court decreed segregation illegal in public schools. Separate but equal was being challenged on all fronts. And four years later, my mother’s friend Eunice Johnson took up that challenge, expanding on what Dorothea had begun. Her husband, John H. Johnson, published Negro Digest, Ebonyand Jet, and it was Eunice who had given Ebonyits bold, pre–Black Power name. Now she launched the Ebony Fashion Fair, a touring fashion show inspired by Dorothea’s but grander. Eunice didn’t use her own clothes. She’d attend the top shows in Paris, Milan and New York, sit in the front row beside the white editors and buy clothes. She’d go in search of young black designers and buy clothes. Then, thanks to Eunice, cream, beige, tan, buff, brown, sepia and (eventually) ebony models would stride and sashay down hotel runways in city after city, wearing the designer clothes she’d supplied for their colored/Negro/black/African-American audiences. It was spectacular.

We were not wholly equal, of course; the white world was still dominant. It had made the rules that excluded us; now it altered those rules to include a few of us. Politics was changing the culture and the marketplace; the aesthetics of fashion and glamour were changing, too. But we had been there all along. Before they noticed or acknowledged us, we were there.

I often look through the clothes my mother has given me over the years. I cherish the Pauline Trigère brushed-wool, funnel-shaped coat, beige with thin stripes of pale mauve, white and lilac blue. I feel like a craft object when I enclose my body in this coat. And I feel vindicated, too, because Trigère was the first top American designer to use a black model regularly.

Brava, Madame Trigère! Still, the piece I most love is Mother’s gold brocade cocktail dress with matching jacket, designed by Malcolm Starr. The dress is sleeveless, with a nipped waist and a skirt just wide enough for a feminist to walk in without mincing her steps. The jacket is trimmed with gold braid; so is the skirt’s front panel.

It’s “flip and flirty,” as my mother prescribed. It’s crisp yet splendid. It makes me feel I’ve put on not just a dress but made-to-order armor.

My mother’s armor.

Armor that helped shield me from exclusion.

Armor that shielded me from -inferiority. 

MARGO JEFFERSON is a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and the author of On Michael Jackson. She teaches in the writing program at Columbia University.

From What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, published by Algonquin Books, Spring 2013.

Next: The Best-Dressed Women on TV

Want MORE? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Share Your Thoughts!


Post new comment

Click to add a comment