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  • Mikelle Drew

28 Days of Black Fashion History: Dorothea Church

As with many of the Black models in the 50's and 60's, Dorothea Church (Dorothea Towles during her early modeling days) broke barriers. During a time when Black women, Black people were not considered beautiful nor marketable, she rose to fame as a sought after haute couture model in Paris.

A biology and pre-med student, Church graduated cum laude at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. Her intent was to practice medicine, but after her mother’s death, she moved to LA to live with a wealthy uncle. There, she completed her master’s degree at University of Southern California.

She was attracted to the glamour of LA and thought about becoming an actress. However, she saw that there weren’t many roles for Black actresses, so she chose modeling instead, believing this was a career she could succeed in. After enrolling in the Dorothy Farrier School of Modeling and Charm, she began modeling for West Coast fashion shows and magazines that catered to Black audiences.

Church accompanied her sister, who was a concert pianist for the Fisk University choir, to France for a two month stay, but once there, she felt there was "too much opportunity” to return to the US.. While there, she decided to try out for some modeling gigs. Christian Dior hired her to replace another model who was on vacation, leading to a 3 year stint in France modeling for designers like Balmain and Schiaparelli. (She was also married at the time. Her husband eventually divorced her after repeated attempts to try and get her to return from Paris.)

Church wearing Balmain in the 1950s.

Like many Black artists of that time, Church recalled that the French treated her like royalty, and looked at her as an American, not a Negro or African American or a Black woman. “If you’re beautiful, they don’t care what color you are,” she said of the French. The French designers also loved her physique: short waist (like French women) with long legs (like American women).

Church modeling new hairstyles (Jet magazine, March 1952)