Do You Know Donyale Luna?

It’s been almost 50 years since the first black supermodel stormed the fashion world. Donyale Luna achieved the elusive supermodel status after she landed the prestigious cover of British Vogue in 1966. The New York Times described Luna as “a stunning Negro model whose face had the hauteur and feline grace of Nefertiti,” and her queenliness reigned as the premiere model of her time.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Luna was the personification of integration. After being discovered in Detroit by famed photographer David McCabe, Luna began ascending the ranks of the fashion world. Her image was omnipresent in magazines, billboards, movies and catwalks and Luna was considered an achievement for the Civil Rights Movement.

But Luna’s legacy disappeared after her death in 1979 at the age of 33. As Keli Goff, political correspondent for The Root, points out in her ode to the supermodel, “Luna’s name is still a rarity on many ‘black firsts’ lists. And Beverly Johnson is routinely referred to as “the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue,” for her turn on the American edition eight years after Luna’s British cover.”

Goff attributes the erasure of Luna to two factors: Her death and the arrival of the “black is beautiful” movement in the 1970’s. I agree, and will also add that Luna’s ascension was marred with tokenism, so her enduring legacy wasn’t as crucial to the fashion world as her presence.

At the time of fashion’s integration, the advertising industry was struggling to appeal to Black consumers due to segregation. Ebony had emerged, stealing potential consumers from other magazine publications, and the fashion industry’s profits were in decline.

Six months after the launch of Ebony, the Johnson Publishing Company approached mainstream advertisers to place adverts within the magazine. In 1952 the head of JPC published an article in the advertising journal .Advertising Age claiming “the Black consumer market—which even in that era of suffocating segregation had $15 billion worth of buying power—was ‘ripe and ready’ for marker exploitation.”

JPC convinced white-owned advertising companies to place supplements in Ebony featuring black models selling products. Advertisers ran parallel advertisements in Ebony and Life magazines, using black models in the former. Segregated advertisements were successful, so agencies began running them in other publications. This caused a sudden demand for black models.

This led to a change in the methods used to target the expanding black consumer market, and was a precursor to the entry of the black woman into the modeling industry as a figure of glamour. The New York Post, in June 1955, reported on the changing image of the black woman from mammy to glamorous model, linking this changing image to the discovery of the lucrative black market. Black consumers didn’t respond positively to products that used racist representations of black people in their advertisements, so advertising agencies knew integration was the sole option.

The United States government also intervened, forcing advertising companies to integrate based on recommendations from the Warner Committee who found only “two integrated ads in the editions of four major magazines, reported last week that 16 companies (including IBM, Northrop, RCA, Equitable Life & Royal McBee) have used Negro models in national media this year while 20 others . . . have issued firm commitments.”

Jane Hoffman, a model of the 1960s, told Ebony there was a succinct purpose for using Black models in the era of the Civil Rights Movement.

“First there was the Negro that looked white. She soothed the company’s conscience. They’d say, “We used a Negro.” ‘Yeah. Where?’ Then there was the Negro girl you’d think of as something else. She wasn’t even beautiful—just a weird creature, some kind of space thing. She had to be so bizarre that no one could identify with her. I had people turn me down saying “Oh Jane! You’re too beautiful!” Now they’ll say you’re not Negro enough! Such ironies are rather a bitter truth for black models who range in skin color from cafe au lait to very black.”

So, modeling and advertising agencies sought “untraditional” models, or women of color with the same features as white models. It is against this historical background that Luna rose to prominence. Luna appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1964 and her “otherworldly features” including her stilt-like limbs, full lips, oval-shaped face and almond-shaped eyes weren’t considered traditional black aesthetics. This appealed to magazine editors and advertisers.

Luna’s emergence was significant because it represented desegregation. However, in order to maintain the privilege associated with landing these positions, Luna had to distance herself from the Civil Rights Movement. She once said, “The civil-rights movement has my greatest support, but I don’t want to get involved racially (Sims, 1979, p. 28).

Luna also adopted a carefree attitude about the Civil Rights Movement, saying “If it brings about more jobs for Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, Negroes – groovy. It could be good, it could be bad. I couldn’t care less.”

So, how could a woman with such promise disappear? It’s simple. Luna was a token, used by the fashion and advertising agencies to protect their profits and reach the black consumer market. Her legacy was an afterthought. Even now, tokenism in the fashion world is a continual issue.

One of the effects of the fashion industry’s aficionado for white skin is the reinforcement of whiteness as superior and blackness as inferior. The lack of opportunities available for black models forces models of color to engage in competition in order to ascend the ranks of the fashion world. Supermodels at the top of the hierarchy are offered magazine covers, cosmetics campaigns, billboards and television commercials and since more of these women are white, it promotes the equation of whiteness with beauty.

Several fashion editors and models have noticed the dearth of color on catwalks and in magazines, but few offer answers. Fashion editor André Leon Talley admits “We have regressed. I often sit at a show and see not one black model on the runway. Can’t they find some black girls?” Talley has mentioned his gripe to designers and editors. Most of them retort with dismissal, claiming models of color don’t fit well into their clothes.

Other editors and gatekeepers are much more frank. One Allure editor said: “Sales are significantly lower when we put a person of color on the cover.” Chanel Iman, a prominent model, told The Times: “Designers have told me, ‘We already found one black girl. We don’t need you anymore.”

The insistence on the tokening of one model of color above the others results in a lack of available positions for Black models. One scholar investigated the lack of color on the cover of Vogue and discovered only three Black models had been featured on the cover of British Vogue in its storied history.

Even fashion week is impacted. The fall/winter 2013 collections were the last New York Fashion Week numbers collected and examined. Jezebel found:

  • 151 shows were covered between the four premiere publications and there were 4,479 spots for models to strut the runway or pose in a presentation.
  • More than 82 percent of those opportunities were offered to White models while Black models were hired for 271 spots, leading to 6 percent of the total positions available.
  • Thirteen companies — Araks, Assembly, Belstaff, Calvin Klein, Elizabeth & James, Gregory Parkinson, J Brand, Jenni Kayne, Juicy Couture, Louise Goldin, Lyn Devon, Threeasfour, and Whit — hired no models of color. Several of those brands – Araks Calvin Klein, Elizabeth & James, and Louise Goldin – didn’t have any models of color in the spring/summer 2013 season either.
  • Around 9 percent of all New York Fashion Week shows were completely White.

Demographics from the New York Fashion Week unveil how little progress has been made toward parity in fashion modeling since the advertising and modeling industries integrated in 1965.

Luna was a casualty of an industry that sees black models as expendable. You may not know Luna, but we see her in the models of today, including Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn. She lives on.

This essay was originally published at Clutch Magazine.

One thought on “Do You Know Donyale Luna?

  1. I feel she’s forgotten because she faught her blackness. She rejected being of color and made up elaborate stories of her roots. It was hard to bestow the title “first black…” on to someone who claimed, and even got others to claim, that she was white. It’s quite sad actually. She let herself be whitewashed… even held the brush.

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