Most Stylish Black Women in History

Most Stylish Black Women in History by Alexandra Phanor-Faury We doubt Michelle Obama ever fathomed that her personal style would be of such interest to the American public. But one year into being First Lady, it’s undeniable that her affinity for fashion has not only been a boast for American fashion but it has also reaffirmed both the buying power of African-American women and what we’ve always known-that Black women are stylish. Michelle Obama may be one of the very few Black women celebrated for her impeccable taste by mainstream America, but she certainly isn’t the first stylish sista to make an impressive fashion mark. Black women have long demonstrated their styles and personalities through their inventive fashion transformations over the past decades. From the 40’s church going women who took pride in their elaborate hats to acclaimed author Zora Neal Hurston’s more minimal lady-like chapeau to Josephine Baker’s sensual style to Grace Jones’ strong edge, fashion has always been part of our lives. In honor of Black History Month, we're taking a look back at the most stylish Black women in history and paying tribute to their timeless style.
ESSENCE.COM Feb, 02, 2010

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Political activist Angela Davis single-handedly iconicized the afro in American fashion and culture.She was a symbol of the Black is Beautiful movement and her look inspired Black women and girls to go natural. Her look of leather jackets, high-waisted bell-bottom jeans, fitted denim jackets, leather miniskirts and tall riding boots was a representation of the un-intended iconic fashion movement that sparked along with the movement.

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If everyone is going right, you can bet Erykah Badu is going left. The genetically gifted soul singer has always played the fashion game on her own terms. The quintessential cool bohemian made her fabulous video debut barefoot and wrapped in a tablecloth from head-to-toe. Talk about individual style. A ballsy move that would come to mark the Grammy-Award winning singer’s personal style philosophy of “do you.” The minute you think you’ve got her figured out, Badu switches it up. She’s gone from ethereal, folky dresses, skirts and headwraps to platform boots, leather pants, top hats and a huge afro. She continued to challenge our preconceived notion of who she is when she was spotted wearing a long Pocahontas wig. In 2008 Tom Ford chose Badu to be the model for his White Patchouli fragrance. The result was an arresting, black and white image that featured a stunning Badu. From flower child to fashion star, Badu keeps re-defining her look.

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Zora Neale Hurston was one of the key players in shaping the Harlem Renaissance. An exceptional writer, she celebrated Black life in rural America in her books, short stories and essays. One of her most famous works, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” was penned when she lived in Haiti doing anthropological work. A defiant and forward thinker, Hurston was almost never without a chic hat or a necklace, preferably a strand of pearls.

Hurston’s love affair with hats started when she was young girl and would continue on into old age. She loved to wear hers tipped to the side to reveal her hairstyle. There was nothing ostentatious about Hurston’s hats. She managed to look both sophisticated and approachable.One look at Hurston and we can’t help but wonder why ladies ever stopped wearing hats.

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Before there was Naomi Campbell, there was Naomi Sims. Sims was the first Black supermodel. The chocolate beauty broke barriers and gained success by appearing on the cover of many high-profile publications such as Life. Sims modeled for the likes of Halston, Fernando Sánchez and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. Nevertheless, Sims did not simply rest on her looks and lithe body, she became an entrepreneur and launched a multi-million dollar wig line for women of color.

As for her ‘do, Sims wore her hair in her signature tight ballerina bun.A look that inspired Diana Ross’s hairstyle in “Mahogany”.
Naomi Sims wears a long belted dress by Halston in 1972.

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Never has there been a performer in pop music with such an unapologetic, in-your-face style like Grace Jones. The Jamaican stunner made a name for herself as a singer, but she will always be remembered for her avant-garde, androgynous ensembles. With impossibly long legs, killer cheekbones and a striking, classically, beautiful face, the fashion world fell head-over-heels for her.

Grace could have easily been content with just being a pretty face, but she had the guts to stray from the conventional definition of beauty. What other female could rock a flat top with such panache in the 70’s? Years later, her unique hairstyle would become a trend among Black men in the 1980’s. Right now in fashion, we have been experiencing a huge Grace Jones revival. Strong shoulders, studs, harem pants, slinky separates, bustiers, fetish inspired clothes, and lots of leather were all Grace Jones trademarks.

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Rihanna has come a long way since her days of “Pon de Replay” when her label was grooming her to be a mini-B (eyonce). Instead of following their lead, Rihanna took control of her image. The first thing to go was the long weave. Along with an edgy Kelis-inspired haircut, the good girl gone bad’s fashion choices were becoming darker and more avant-garde. Not surprisingly, Rihanna has said that one of the style icons she draws inspiration from is Grace Jones.

While some of you don’t always agree with her sartorial choices, you’ve got to admire anyone who sticks to their fashion guns.

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There’s always been an air of mystery around Sade. She doesn’t need bells and whistles to get our attention and in this gimmicky music landscape, that’s rare. No new makeover with every new album or promotional tour with outfit changes for Sade, since the 80’s the Nigerian-British songstress’s atmospheric, soulful voice has been all that she’s needed to win a loyal following. She’s also manage to win new generations of fans over the years.

When it comes to Sade’s style, the first thing that pops to mind is her long-time signature tight, low ponytail or chignon, those strong brows, her large hoop earrings and that fire-engine,enviable pout. We loved her look in the 80’s, she was so chic. Recently, M.I.A. was quoted as saying that her current pared-down look is inspired by Sade.

Her style was a mix of minimalist sexy with long, body-hugging dresses with long sleeves that revealed an open back from behind (similar to what she wore in the video for “Smooth Operator”) and menswear elegance with oversized men’s shirts tucked into jeans and driving gloves. Sade has a knack for looking feminine, elegant and sexy.

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Supermodel Iman kicked off her amazing career as a model at Vogue in 1976. After that, there was no turning back for the Somalian bombshell. Designers like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Yves Saint Laurent flocked to Iman and made her their muse.

In 2007, Iman created IMAN Global Chic and IMAN Cosmetics. A red carpet regular, Iman favors long gowns with eye-catching details. Here, in a Donna Karan gown, Iman could give girls half her age a run for their money.

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The Queen of Hip Hop Soul is the definition of modern style and swagger. Mary J. Blige has developed her own look that is a mixture of urban, chic and glam. Never afraid to push the envelop, MJB is always changing the way women dress, wear their hair and examine their lives. She is the epitome of life style.

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Naomi is the consummate supermodel. She has all the characteristics one associates with models: she’s incredibly beautiful, fashionable, rich and has lots of attitude. Although she’s paid her dues as a model and moved on to other endeavors and charity work, she is one of the few catwalk beauties from the 90’s that continues to work consistently. Naomi has appeared in over 500 magazine covers!

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From hair and beauty to fashion, Diana Ross has been setting trends for decades. In fact, Ross had dreams of becoming a fashion designer and was studying design before she started singing.

Her flair for fashion was obvious from the moment she stepped on stage. Over the decades we’ve watched her dazzle in shimmer, fringe dresses, sparkly body suits, silk wrap dresses and high-waisted pant suits. But Diana Ross’s biggest fashion moment was on film in “Mohagany.” The fashions in that movie were iconic. The large, floppy hats, the wide leg pants and the one-shoulder dresses were some of the many stand-out looks in the movie. Diana Ross looked amazing in the wardrobe. We don’t think any other actress could have owned those looks like Miss Ross did.

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Looking breathtaking in a Jason Wu ivory, silk-chiffon gown at the Inaugural Ball, it was evident that Michelle Obama had sealed her fate as a fashion maverick. Michelle Obama pushes the fashion envelope when it comes to what we expect our First Ladies to dress like. She proves that intelligence and fashion can co-exist.

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Singer, dancer and style icon Josephine Baker was known for her lavish stage costumes. In fact, in the 1930 musical Paris Qui Remue, she had an outstanding 50 costume changes. Baker loved playing dress-up and French audiences applauded her sense of theatrical style of feathers, silk, sequins and headpieces.

While the one look that is etched in most minds is of Baker in her banana skirt, this sensual performer, especially in the 30’s and 40’s, was the picture of elegance. Designers like Dior and Balmain designed beautiful gowns for Baker and were inspired by her joie de vivre. The French were crazy about her style and her image was used to promote a number of successful products, like hair pomades and skin darkening lotions, Parisian women used in an attempt at emulating Baker.

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Diahann Carroll was the first African-American actress to star in her own TV show. She played a single mother and nurse which made “Julia”, at that time, groundbreaking for featuring a Black woman who was not a maid. She would win a Golden Globe for her role in 1968.

Carroll’s illustrious career is full of moments in which she has broken color barriers. In 1962 Carroll was the first Black woman to win a Tony for best actress for yet another unconventional role for Black women: a chic model in Paris. She was one of the first glamorous Black actresses in Hollywood on and off film. She was a jet-setter who lived lavishly and wore Haute Couture. Carroll represented the Black woman White America had no clue existed.

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The seductive singer and actress ooozed sexuality. Kitt flirted with the idea of being a sex kitten her entire career. With her feline features, almond shaped eyes and growling voice, Kitt was born to play Catwoman. Kitt, who began her career first as a dancer in Katherine Dunham’s dance company, got her first big break when Orson Wells gave her the part of Helen of Troy. While she may have loved her bosom baring dresses and slit gowns, Kitt knew there was a fine line between sexy and vulgar.


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