Standing On Their Shoulders – Helen Williams

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A beauty throwback! In 1950s America Helen Williams became the first black female model to break into the fashion mainstream. Born in East Riverton, New Jersey in 1937, she was obsessed with clothes from an early age, and began sewing her own garments at the age of seven. As a teenager she studied dance, drama and art before getting a job as a stylist at a New York photography studio. While there she was spotted on separate occasions by Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr, who happened to be in the studio doing press shots. Struck by her beauty, they urged her to take up modeling. She was seventeen.

With her trademark bouffant wig, sculpted eyebrows and long, giraffe-like neck, she worked exclusively for African American magazines such as Ebony and Jet. These early years were tough, as not only did beauty’s apartheid system exclude all non-white models from mainstream fashion, but within the black modeling scene itself, the girls were required to be light-skinned, just like the African American chorus girls of the 1920s. “I was too dark to be accepted,” she recalled.

But that was America. The French, by contrast, held a very different view, and by 1960 she’d moved to Paris. “Over there I was ‘La Belle Americaine,’” she said. She modelled in the ateliers of designers Christian Dior and Jean Dessès. By the end of her tenure she was making $7,500 a year working part-time, and she’d received three marriage proposals from French admirers, one of whom kissed her feet and murmured, “I worship the ground you walk on, mademoiselle.”

After Paris she returned to America, where things had not changed at all for dark-skinned models. While searching for a new agent in New York City, she once waited two hours in the reception of one agency, only to be told that they had “one black model already, thanks.” But Williams never-say-die attitude meant that she would not take no for an answer. “I was pushy and positive,” she said. Undeterred at being rejected, the young beauty took her case to the press. Influential white journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson took up her cause, drawing attention to beauty’s continuing exclusion of black models. This opened things up for Williams, who was then booked for a flurry of ads for brands such as Budweiser, Loom Togs and Modess, which crossed over for the first time into the mainstream press, in titles such as The New York Times, Life and Redbook. By 1961 her hourly rate had shot up to $100 an hour. Fashion’s lily-white membrane had finally been breached.

It was a pivotal moment for black beauty, as Williams’s success broke the tradition for only using light-skinned models. “Elitists in our group would laugh at somebody if they were totally black,” said model-turned-agent Ophelia DeVore. “And when she [Williams] came along she was very self-conscious because she was dark. She gave people who were Black the opportunity to know that if they applied themselves they could reach certain goals.” Williams was the first beauty to break the four hundred year chain that had branded dark skin as ugly. The same dark skin that was rendered second-class during slavery, that the minstrels once ridiculed, and that had relegated Hollywood’s actors to roles as servants and clowns, was suddenly beautiful.

Credit: Lipstick Alley

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2 responses »

  1. And yet doesn’t it seem like society still judges beauty by a specific criteria created by a select few? I saw an article last year saying you can take a face, measure the width between eyes, the length of the face, etc., and those dimensions were the definition of beauty. I found that article horrible and wish I could now remember where I came across it. I do think though, that there is a standard for beauty that has nothing to do with real life, that has somehow become accepted when it should be scorned. When I think of the courage it would take to break through that standard, and then add in the difficulties of doing so in the 50s and 60s with being black on top of that, all I can say is Helen Williams was a strong, courageous woman. Wish I could have known her.

    • Lisa, you said it! We are still struggling with crazy beliefs and mores about beauty. I just recently learned about Helen Williams myself. It is sad that we have to look under proverbial rocks where much of the true history of America is hidden. Thanks for your comments!! -Marcia

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