feature: fashion in retrospect – the ‘vintage black glamour’ book

January 23, 2015

From what began as research for a novel about three friends who meet as contestants in all-black beauty pageants in the 1950s, Nichelle Gainer found herself on a never ending exploration of black fashion history – with a focus on “Vintage Black Glamour“, the title of her new book. In the book, a collection of images from 1900 to 1980, Gainer showcases famous names as well as those who have faded from public recollection; celebrating both the woman and her style. “Wearing beautiful clothes and presenting yourself in an elegant manner was not only about personal taste and style, it was often a way to stand up for yourself and other black people and asserting our humanity and dignity to some who were accustomed to seeing black people in narrow ways”, says the writer. Explore some of the images, below.

By Alexander Aplerku, AFROPUNK Contributor

Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1883–1961) on her wedding day in 1911. She converted a blacksmith’s shop into Palmer Memorial Institute, a day and boarding school for African-Americans, in 1902 when she was 19. She earned a doctorate and went on to lecture at top colleges including Smith, Radcliffe, Howard, Hampton, and Tuskegee Institute. In 1941, she wrote a book of etiquette expressly for African-Americans called ‘The Correct Thing: To Do, To Say, To Wear’. Associated News


Margot Tynes (b. 1919) on September 29, by Carl Van Vechten. Associated News

Adelaide Hall began her career as a chorus member in Shuffle Along in 1921, was the star of Chocolate Kiddies in 1925, and became the first black star to be given a long-term contract with the BBC. Hall (1901–1993), photographed here in Blackbirds of 1928, had her own radio series in the UK and lived there for over 40 years. Her last performance was at Carnegie Hall on her 90th birthday.  Associated News

Lena Horne. At the age of 80, Horne said: “My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”  Associated News

Donna Summer (1948–2012)  performing in Atlanta, March 1978. Associated News

Margot Webb, the groundbreaking dancer in feathers, 1934.  Associated News

Stunning shot of Nina Simone backstage in Pittsburgh by legendary photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, circa 1965.  Associated News

Pearl Primus. Trinidadian Primus (1919–1994) is best known for creating dances like “Strange Fruit” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which were inspired by poetry and social issues. Carl Van Vechten/Van Vechten Trust/Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Princess Kouka of Sudan. “I don’t care if she doesn’t speak English. I don’t care if she’s had no experience. She’s got what it takes.” So said English producer Walter Futter, who hand-picked Princess Kouka for the role of Gara in the 1937 film Jericho, in which she starred with Paul Robeson and for which this photo was taken. Associated News

Shirley Bassey. The Welsh singer (b. 1937) being prepared for performance in 1960. Associated News