THE FIRST BLACK MODEL AT CHRISTIAN DIOR
By Marcellous L. JONES
Dorothea Towles was the first black model to work for haute couture houses in Paris. Her ground breaking contributions to the annals of fashion not only paved the way for the earliest black supermodels such as Donyale Luna, Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland and Iman.
Dorothea grew up in Texarkana, Texas with seven brothers and sisters. A strong student, she graduated from Wiley College at the tender age of 18 in 1945. In spite of the segregated times in which she grew up as a girl, her parents managed to instil in her a sense of optimism for the future.
After her mother’s death in the early 1940’s, Dorothea travelled to Los Angeles, California. There, she enrolled herself at the Dorothy Ferrier Modeling School where she was the only “coloured girl”. Always eager to discover and immerse herself, she would travel frequently to Sunset Strip in Hollywood.
In 1949, Dorothea followed her older sister Lois, a professor at Fisk University and aspiring concert pianist to France. Arriving in Paris on a makeshift cargo plane via Newfoundland, Dorothea found that the long trip was well worth it. She found new liberties and opportunities that were not to be hers back in the Texas of segregation. This prompted her to sell her return trip to the US and settle abroad.
Back in Paris, Dorothea needed to work and decided to put to work her experiences obtained from the Dorothy Ferrier Modeling School. The French designers loved her short waist and long legs, as they were similar to those of French women’s.
Christian Dior was the first to hire her. Working with other models from Finland, Sweden, England and even Soviet Russia, she helped Dior to internationalize the appeal of his fashions. She was one of the models chosen to help make popular Dior’s revolutionary “New Look”. She learned the “Dior swirl” and dazzled his clients during the many runway shows.
An avid traveller, shhe found herself in exotic and far-off destinations like Algiers, Baden Baden, Germany, etc. In 1953, she stunned the French and literally stopped traffic on the famed Champs-Elysées as she crossed it with her newly bleached blond hair.
Full of optimism after her successes in Europe, Dorothea returned to the United States in the 1950s. Life for Dorothea would not be so open and free as she had known it to be in Europe. If not for the pictures that she kept in her personal collection, the historic achievements of the little coloured girl from Texarkana may have gone unknown for years. The fact that she worked with some of the most famous designers in Paris helped to begin opening minds in Europe and eventually making fashion more inclusive in the United States and.
After settling down in the US, Dorothea married the immigrations attorney, Tom Church. They were married for 36 years.