Today, I thought I’d talk about another of the black female fashion models who worked in the 1960s. As with Donyale Luna and Naomi Sims, Helen Williams was labelled as ‘the first black supermodel’. She was thought to be the first African-American model to get mainstream exposure through advertising.
Here’s some more about her.
Into fashion from the start
Helen Williams was born in East Riverton in the US state of New Jersey in 1937. She enjoyed fashion at a very young age, and was already making her own clothes by the tender age of seven.
As a teenager, she studied dance, drama and art before taking her first job as a stylist at a photography studio when she moved to New York at the age of seventeen.
While working at the studio, Williams’ beauty was noticed by celebrities visiting on separate occasions. These included Lena Horne, who was already famed as a singer, actress and civil rights activist. Sammy Davis Jr, who was also a huge celebrity in the 1950s, spotted her too. Both encouraged the young stylist to make a career out of modelling.
From New York to Paris
Helen Williams’ career as a model developed when she became the feature model in magazines such as Ebony and its’ sister publication Jet in the 1950s. These were specifically targeted at an African-American readership.
However, when Williams tried to find other work, she found racism rearing its’ ugly head. Despite not being especially dark-skinned, she was still seen as ‘too dark’. This ‘colourism’ also came from other African-Americans within the black fashion world.
In 1960, Helen Williams followed the footsteps of models that came before her such as Dorothea Towles and moved to Paris. Once there, she found she was much more celebrated. The fashion world referred to her as ‘la belle americaine’ .
Some of the designers Williams modelled clothes for included Christian Dior, where Yves Saint Laurent was the head designer, and the couturier Jean Dessès.
Back in the USA
In 1961, Helen Williams returned to the United States in the hope that the tide had turned towards an appreciation of beauty in all shades. Unfortunately, nothing had changed.
Fed up at rejection after rejection by modelling agencies in New York City, Williams turned to the press to help her cause. After the issue of the exclusion of black fashion models was publicised by the influential New York-based journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson, her career took off. Within that year, Williams was earning $100 an hour ($810 an hour in today’s money).
Print advertisements that Williams appeared in included Budweiser and Kodak. As well as publications targetted at black audiences, these adverts also appeared in mainstream publications read by white Americans. The New York Times and Life Magazine were just two of them.
Helen Williams was also one of the first clients of the Grace de Marco modelling agency in New York. Established in 1946 by the African-American model-turned-entrepreneur Ophelia DeVore, the agency was one of the first in the United States.
Helen Williams’ modelling career continued throughout the 1960s. In 1970, she retired and returned to her previous occupation as a stylist.
Williams now resides in her home town with Norm Jackson, her husband of 40 years who she met while modelling.
In 2004, the not-for-profit organisation Fashion Arts Xchange gave Helen Williams the Trailblazer Award at a ceremony hosted at the Fashion Institute of Technology. This recognised her role as one that lit the way for other models of colour to come after her.
I know people keep talking about ‘the first black model’, but Helen Williams was really the first one to have entered the mainstream American consciousness. Despite the frankly ridiculous notion that she was too dark-skinned to be beautiful, she grew to be celebrated.
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