Trailblazers

The Best-Dressed Black Women in History

From Josephine Baker to Michelle Obama, these black women were—and are—style leaders, and inspirations.

02.23.16 5:01 AM ET

Black History Month falls at the same time as New York, London, and Milan Fashion Weeks—a fitting moment to pay tribute to some of the most influential black female fashion icons.

Historically, there have been black women whose beauty and glamour garnered them notoriety during their lives, but who never received full appreciation for their contributions to the world.

Among them are Dorothea Church, the first black model to find success in Europe, Nina Mae McKinney and Fredi Washington, two of the first black actresses to find success in mainstream Hollywood, as well as Dorothy Dandridge the first black actress nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.

Activist Angela Davis and actress Pam Grier wielded influence in different arenas, but both hold a significant place in style history for proving that how one wears her hair can be its own form of power.

US soul diva Diana Ross performs at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo Spektrum on December 11, 2008. Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson hosts the concert, this year honouring laureate Martti Ahtisaari of Finland. Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, won the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to mediate conflicts around the world for more than three decades.  AFP PHOTO / Cornelius Poppe/ SCANPIX NORWAY (Photo credit should read CORNELIUS POPPE/AFP/Getty Images)

Cornelius Poppe/AFP/Getty

Our list includes a diverse array of women who were fashion forces in their own ways, and who paved the style-way for well-known names like Beverly Johnson, the first black woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, and Beyoncé Knowles, who has appeared on the magazine’s cover three times and is one of only three black women to cover the famed September issue.

Some in our list are, like Beyoncé, celebrities, such as the incomparable Lena Horne. But others are lesser known, but their influence just as significant.

Over the years multiple people have mentioned the style of the late Judge Constance Baker Motley to me. When reached while researching this piece, one of her former clerks mentioned she had just attended a reunion of Motley’s clerks and they went around the room sharing memories of the late judge who made history in her trailblazing career more than once.

Many of the recollections had to do with her style, and the way she used it to navigate power, a reminder that style can often be a great equalizer.

Diahann Carroll

Best known for her history-making turn as the star of Julia (which made her the first black woman to appear as the lead in a television series in a non-servant role,) Diahann Carroll made fashion history as well. Not only is she one of the beloved icons of 80’s fashion thanks to her role as Dominique Deveraux on the nighttime soap classic Dynasty (watch this classic scene), she was also the first black woman to appear on the International Best Dressed List.

Lillian Evanti

The classical singer was not only celebrated for her voice, but for her beauty, and style choices. Countless photographs capture Evanti in stylish hats, fur stoles, or in full on opera diva regalia—bejeweled headdresses and eye-catching accessories.

A subject of famed photographer Carl Van Vechten (among others), she was in such demand at the peak of her career that she performed a private concert at the White House at the request of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

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Coretta Scott King

As the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King was the de facto First Lady of the American Civil Rights Movement—and she dressed the part.

A trained classical singer who won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music she would give up her singing career to join her husband’s civil rights efforts.

But she continued to dress like the elegant star she could have become.

Her stylish hats, and ladylike suits, and pearls call to mind her contemporary, First Lady Jackie Kennedy. The two would be bonded in tragedy, with Kennedy offering support to King when her husband was also assassinated after the president.

Even at their husbands’ funerals their style choices were eerily similar, exuding a measure of regal grace at moments of profound pain.

Donyale Luna

The first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue (the British edition in 1966), Donyale Luna was one of the swinging 60’s brightest lights. Her style epitomized go-go glamour—full of sparkles, eccentric prints, fur and statement jewelry.

Her fashion choices, combined with her mysterious, exoticized persona, made her a muse of Andy Warhol, as well as many fashionistas of color today.

Luna (birth name Peggy Ann Freeman) became a favorite of some of the most famous photographers in history, including David Bailey and Richard Avedon, before dying at 33 of a drug overdose.

Lena Horne

One of the first black movie stars, Horne played an integral role in transforming how white and black Americans viewed black women.

Black actresses had long been cast in domestic roles, but Horne emerged in the 1940s and epitomized elegance onscreen and was often photographed in glamorous gowns off-screen.

The star of films such as Stormy Weather, she would struggle to find roles befitting a black woman of her beauty and sophistication. (She would also suffer for her political activism and outspoken support of civil rights.)

She found immense success in the theater, becoming the first black woman nominated for a Tony for Best Actress in a musical and would win a Tony Award for her one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music.”

Michelle Obama

The first black First Lady has graced the cover of fashion bible Vogue magazine twice, and with good reason. Mrs. Obama’s fashion choices have the ability to transform designers and brands overnight.

She made Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo household names after wearing their fashions for her husband’s first inaugural festivities and J. Crew’s servers famously crashed after she sported the brand’s accessories.

Many items have been known to sell out after she wears them, making her one of the most valuable brand ambassadors in the world.

Just as important, in her role as First Lady, representing America to the rest of the world, she has transformed how Americans define American beauty, femininity and womanhood.

Diana Ross

As a member of the Supremes, one of the first black acts to achieve international superstardom in the television age, Diana Ross was one of the first black women white Americans identified with glamour.

For plenty of black women such as childhood fan Oprah Winfrey, she was also their first introduction to a black style icon.

A product of Motown’s charm school titan Maxine Powell, Ross was trained from a young age that image was crucial to her career. From her uniformed conservative ensembles with the Supremes to the sexy catsuits she sported later in her career, she was always fashion forward.

Perhaps one of her most enduring contributions to fashion is her starring role in the hit film Mahogany, in which she portrays a black woman who becomes a successful model turned fashion designer.

Grace Jones

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Grace Jones should be one of the most flattered women in the world.

Artists from Lady Gaga to Rihanna have been accused of imitating the former model turned singer/actress’ over the top style, often comprised of show-stopping headwear, and risqué, revealing attire.

Probably her greatest contribution to fashion is making androgyny cool across color lines. As a testament to Jones’ immense cultural influence in fashion and beyond, the former Bond girl is not only a favorite performer of England’s royal family (famously performing with a hula hoop at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee) but images of her are often replicated.

Kanye West’s then-girlfriend Amber Rose paid homage to Jones by recreating her album covers for Complex magazine, including the iconic image of a nearly nude Jones balanced on one leg while holding a microphone photographed by Jean-Paul Goude.

Eunice Johnson

After co-founding Ebony magazine with her husband Bob, Eunice Johnson immersed herself in her three passions: publishing, fashion, and philanthropy ultimately combining all of the above to create Ebony Fashion Fair.

The traveling fashion show raised millions for charity throughout its five-decade existence and launched the careers of black models, including future supermodel Pat Cleveland and future Shaft star Richard Roundtree.

She also transformed the cosmetics industry. Her creation of Fashion Fair Cosmetics after she struggled to find makeup colors for her models resulted in other companies diversifying their product lines. (Although apparently not enough.)

Johnson’s own closet was legendary as well. After her death her clothing collection was the subject of a CBS News special segment, while pieces from Ebony Fashion Fair were the subject of a museum exhibit.

Josephine Baker

Arguably the most copied style icon of all time (everyone from Beyoncé to Kat Graham has paid tribute to her), Josephine Baker was the first black international superstar.

Though perhaps best remembered today for the banana skirt she sported during one of her most famous and seductive routines, she also wore many elegant evening gowns during performances at sold-out venues throughout the world.

But part of what makes Baker’s style legacy so enduring is that she was so ahead of her time.

When many women were still adhering to traditional beauty standards, Baker forged her own path.

As the only official female speaker at the March on Washington she wore her French military style uniform with the medal Légion d’honneur she had been awarded by her adopted country for her work on behalf of the French Resistance—an early nod to the masculine meets feminine look Grace Jones would help popularize.

Susan Fales-Hill

As one of few black women to reach showrunner level, Susan Fales-Hill is a Hollywood trailblazer.

Fales-Hill helmed the groundbreaking sitcom A Different World, the Cosby Show spinoff set at a historically black college (that launched the careers of Marisa Tomei and Jada Pinkett), and wrote some of the series’ most critically acclaimed episodes.

Fales-Hill has also broken barriers in fashion.

One of the few black women to be named to the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame, Fales-Hill’s induction in 2004 continued a tradition of glamorous women in her family.

Her mother was the Tony-nominated Haitian actress Josephine Premice. (Her father is a descendant of the prominent Fales family—as in the Fales Library at NYU. Their interracial marriage sparked a scandal at the time.)

The sophisticated Premice was photographed extensively throughout her life, and continues to be celebrated by younger fashionistas today through sites like Vintage Black Glamour.

Lupita Nyong’o

It has been said that style cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t. Nyong’o clearly has it, landing on best-dressed lists the moment she began to appear on red carpets following her film debut in 12 Years A Slave.

From the ethereal powder blue Prada gown she won to collect her Oscar in 2014, to the red-caped Ralph Lauren ensemble she wore to collect her Golden Globe the same year, Nyong’o has consistently shown that she is a fashion risk taker, trailblazer and influencer.

The area in which Nyong’o has had most impact is in the realm of beauty. Named the most Beautiful Woman in the World by People magazine, she is the first dark-skinned, natural-haired black woman to achieve mainstream success as a beauty icon, culminating in a cosmetics contract with Lancôme.

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley was the first black woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and would go on to become the first black woman to serve as a federal judge.

Motley, who wrote the initial draft of the complaint that formed the basis for Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated America’s schools, was remembered for her elegant ensembles.

In the book Great Dames, Motley is recalled as wearing “a fashionable black coat, and matching hat and elegant printed scarf” to federal court at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1962.

Conscious that the image she presented before the judiciary and before media would not only impact the views of those deciding civil rights cases, but the way society viewed African Americans as a whole, Motley constructed a wardrobe that combined custom tailored pieces with high-end department store wares. The outfits were fashion winners, in and out of the courtroom.