In the 1950s the barriers set up against African-Americans managed to exclude them from almost everything unless they fought ten times harder than anyone else to get it. African-Americans were still segregated during these times and one of the many areas of segregation included the fashion industry worldwide.
In this environment, beautiful, tough and confident Dorothea Towles went on to become the first top black model to work in Paris. She was born July 26, 1922. Among her siblings, Dorothea’s sister Lois would also work to break down barriers, and became known as a concert pianist and music professor.
As a teen, Dorothea modeled exclusively for Black magazines Stateside—but during a two-month vacation to Paris in 1949, she was discovered by Christian Dior, and embarked on a wildly successful career as one of the most celebrated models in Europe. During her career, she was a favorite of designers like Pierre Balmain and Elsa Schaperelli. In 1954, she returned home and began organizing fashion shows at Black colleges, showing her own couture line. Fifty years later, Towles reminisced on her time as the toast of Paris, commenting, “For once I was not considered Black, African-American or Negro. I was just an American.” Dorothea died July 7, 2006. At the time she was still working to promote modeling and opening doors for others.