Black Female Icons who Transformed Fashion History / Mikara Reid

What comes to mind when you think of fashion icons? Is it their visual trademark that inspires many generations to come? Their notable demeanor with effortless confidence? If you thought along those lines then you’re on the right track.

Fashion icons are individuals who inspire spans of generations far beyond their own. With their seriously bold styles, distinctive personalities, and alluring mannerisms, public figures like Rihanna, Solange, Zoe Kravitz, Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong'o , Zendaya -- just to name a few. But where do you think these women get inspiration from?

Considering fashion has always played hand and hand with the entertainment business, these current fashion icons grab elements from women in the historical era who stood out as trendsetters of their time. Over the course of a century, we’ve seen some incredible black women breaking the mold for decades and break down racial barriers in areas like music, film and modeling. But thanks to them, they have also paved the way for some of our most influential fashion styles today.

So who do these current fashion icons refer too? Historical Fashion Icon -- an individual who is considered a historic fashion icon during the 20th century and possess a combination of extensive boldness, over-the-top glamour and ground-breaking appearances of their time. Mainly, these women of the past and present continue to inspire designers, stylists and fashion enthusiasts of today, and have become known as fashion legends.

Rounding up the historic black fashion innovators to celebrate and recognize the women who redefined the fashion world and have pushed beyond the boundaries and their contributions to fashion by playing a significant role in the evolution of style today. So in honor of UK’s Black History Month, here are some of the most prominent black historical fashion figures of the 20th century that influence many of your favorite celebrities now.

  1. Josephine Baker: 1920s–1975

A stage performer in the Jazz age 1920s, Josephine Baker quickly gained recognition for her bold dancing and brazen costumes with her vaudeville performances. Even though her notable Eton’s haircut, signature cloche hats and flapper dresses were her “it” factor, there was one particular outfit that outlives the other flapper dresses while also causing a lot of controversy, which was the infamous banana flapper dress.

2. Dorothy Dandridge: 1930s–1965

An actress, singer, dancer and classic pin-up girl, Dorothy immersed herself in elegance with her signature off-the-shoulder dresses, vivid red lipsticks and popped collar look, Dorothy Dandridge was Old Hollywood personified. Her stardom and visual trademark began to be noticed in the movie, Carmen Jones, that seemed to fit her sultry looks and flirtatious style for the role.

3. Lena Horne: 1930s–2000

Singing gave Lena Horne her breakthrough, but her couture gowns commanded attention when she entered the room; she always knew how to accentuate her mile-long legs and hourglass figure with elegant body-skimming dresses. Her fashion choices amplified her performance appearances, and she exuded grace and class.

4. Billie Holiday: 1930s–1959

The sultry songstress enchanted audiences with her unique jazz sound and style. From her ornate floral headpieces to the fit-and-flare dresses that accentuated her curves, this became her staple image throughout time.

5. Joyce Bryant 1940s - 2004

During the height of Joyce Bryant’s career as a performer with a four-octave range, Bryant also stood out from the pack of singers with her signature silver hair and form fitting mermaid dresses or backless, cleavage-baring dresses.

6. Eartha Kitt: 1940s- Present

Eartha Kitt made a lasting mark in fashion in the '50s and '60s with her signature head-to-toe leopard print look and turban headpieces. Kitt got bolder with her fashion as fashion became all the more tighter and suggestive.

7. Diahann Carroll: 1950s -present

This award-winning actress, Diahann Carroll, had such a captivating personality that translated on and off the screen while donning perfectly-coiffed curls, classic black pant suits, and pointed-toe heels that provided women a perfect balance -- the feminine masculine look.

8. Angela Davis 1960s - present

The forefront lady for the movement “Black is Beautiful” while sporting an emblematic naturally blown-out Afro was an activist named Angela Davis . This movement started in the 1960s, sought for dispelling the idea that black features like textured hair, skin color, and facial features to encourage black men and women to avoid straightening their hair and bleaching their skin. Not your standard fashion innovator, but Davis’s Afro not only became a symbol for the movement, but later became a trend among other cultures.


9. Nina Simone: 1950s–2003

Nina Simone captures the boldness and blackness as a jazz singer and civil rights activist. Simone’s voice served as a musical counterpart to her art, so did her style. Visually, she favored mixed/bold print head wraps, chunky jewelry, big sunglasses, and pure white evening gowns that made her skin look even darker.

10. Tina Turner 1950s - Present

Rock and Roll hasn’t seen another queen like Tina Turner. Tina Turner embodied the true essence of a style chameleon. Throughout her career, she never shied away from the possibility of altering her image. Long thick wigs, spiky hair, or her signature fringed bodysuit, it was clear that her take on style was quite versatile in everyone’s eyes.


11. Diana Ross: 1950s–Present

Entering the music business as the lead singer of The Supremes, Diana Ross later broke out of the group and elevated her personal style while going into her solo singing artistry alongside a budding career as an actress. Ross initially went to school planning to become a fashion designer, but soon found herself in the music industry where she was still able to channel her fashion attribute to the world.

12. Donna Summer: 1960s–2012

The singer entitled, “Queen of Disco,” Donna Summer, proved that you can be have the combination of sexy yet sophisticated. Her style was nothing short of fabulousness. Donna boldly stepped on stage in head-to-toe white plumes, oversized sunnies, sequin dresses, adding blunt bangs and an oversized floral headpiece; her versatility and wardrobe set her apart as a well-revered legend that has always been a showstopper!

13. Grace Jones 1970s - Present

Grace Jones paved the way for androgynous style to be fashion-forward and mainstream with her modeling, acting, and singing career. With her signature flat top hairstyle and avant garde fashion, Jones is often credited for influencing the cross-dressing movement of the 1980s.

14. Pam Grier: 1970s–Present

Actress, Pam Grier, better known as Foxy Brown, epitomized the curvaceous women during the ’70s era with her undeniable sex appeal and physique. She confidently set the tone with denim hip-huggers, plunging necklines, platform shoes, and crop tops so women can accept their curves.

15. Chaka Khan: 1970s–Present

No one pushed the boundaries of fashion more in the ’70s than the legendary singer Chaka Khan. As a 70s flowerchild, her eclectic bohemian outfits entailed lavish fur, lots of fringe, leather, suede pants, fluffy ‘fros, and funky headwear! Her infectious spirit and fashionable fearlessness is what truly allows her to stand out from other icons.

We want to thank these women of color in the industry for really embracing and taking risks with fashion by following their keen eyes for style. Your style will live forever.



Mikara Reid



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