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)
At the same time, she wasn’t completely immune to racism while in France. When she tried to borrow designs from Pierre Balmain for an Ebony Magazine shoot, his publicist refused, concerned that his white clientele would be offended and that readers of the magazine wouldn’t be interested in buying his clothes anyway. “They didn’t think that African American women would buy the clothes, that they could buy the clothes,” Church said of Balmain’s business staff in an interview for the 1998 book “Black and Beautiful” by Barbara Summers.—LA Times, July 2006. She later took the clothes saying she would wear them to a party, and the magazine then photographed them.
"They didn’t think that African American women would buy the clothes, that they could buy the clothes."
Church in a 1959 ad for Maybelline.
As her career in France progressed, she began to buy samples of the gowns she saw and wore. She eventually amassed quite a collection of clothing (estimated to be valued at $50,000) that had rarely been seen by American audiences. Upon returning to the US, she went on a Black college tour, modeling her haute couture she acquired while in France. Her shows raised money for her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. She would later sign with the Grace del Marco agency in NYC and work as a fashion commentator for radio.
Of her fashion shows and the effect they had, Church said this:, “I feel that my going all over America with my show had a great influence on American black women dressing differently and feeling good about themselves, . . . I saw them dressing more creatively, more internationally. They could say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it, too.’ ”—New York Times, July 2006.
But before her death, even with the work she’d done to break racial barriers, even with the emergence and popularity of models like Alek Wek, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, she still felt more work needed to be done. In an interview with WWD in 2004, she said, “I still think the white world might be afraid of our beauty or they want someone who is more ethnic from other parts of the world.”—WWD, April 2004.
“I still think the white world might be afraid of our beauty or they want someone who is more ethnic from other parts of the world.”
Church in 2005. (Photo: Bill Cunningham for New York Times.)
Dorothea Church passed away at 83 in NYC.