A dive into 100 years of Black beauty

Who is not obsessed with old black and white photographs of uncensored Black beauties from the 1920s, 40s or even the 60s? The Kindred. team surely is! If not for the simple fact that these women were oppressed by racism, constantly living under the threat of their oppressors - yet Black women across the ages managed to define beauty as a means of survival.

Black fashion during those times was not only a statement of identity but an affirmation of resilience, almost a way of showing the world that they existed. Black women survived the mental torment of their oppressors by putting themselves together in the most graceful of ways. Style is a matter of identity, an act of strength and bravery in showing your true colours to the world and for Black women, hair and beauty speaks volume and deserves to be celebrated.

1920s: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker
Source: Glasshouse Images

Josephine Baker was the first Black female to enter the world of mainstream cinema in the 1920s. Her beauty was incomparable, and her style was very much reflective of the era. The trauma of World War I brought fewer restrictions to fashion in its wake, with tight fits embracing woman’s curves entering our world via the screens of 1920s cinema.

Baker’s naturally elongated figure reflected the new trends of this age and she wore laced boudoir dresses, adorned with pearls. Her hair was generally treated with relaxers to give it a thin texture, in order not to "shock" the predominantly white audience at the time with her natural Black hair.

If you are wondering when the baby hair trend started, we have Josephine Baker to thank for it - her beautifully sculpted baby hair kickstarted the look. Her make-up was natural and somewhat hefty to enhance her soft facial features. It’s safe to say Ms Baker was not only a pioneer of the silver screen but of Black beauty too.

1930s: Ethel Moses

Ethel Moses
Photographer: Maurice Seymour

In the 1930s, a little volume was introduced to Black women’s hair. Hair was still straightened with chemicals, but waves and curls became a part of Black women’s hairstyles. Actress Ethel Moses introduced a more feminine look during the Harlem Renaissance in America. She set the trend for a toned-down, maternal kind of look in her movies.

Instead of being a product of exotism in her choice of film roles, she chose to play the role of the everyday Black woman. Long pencil skirts, blouses, and shirts buttoned to the top with a certain finesse were her signature look. She changed the perception of Black women as she portrayed them as looking after their families and going through life like any other human being rather than as a source of curiosity or entertainment to white people.

1940s: Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday
Source: Glasshouse Images

Flower in her hair, suave voice, a troubled life, truthful lyrics, singer of Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday sure left a legacy unlike any other for Black women. With World War II raging on and the ongoing racism and oppression that the Black community faced during the 1940s, she was a delight to her listeners who needed to hear the truth as a purgation of feelings or catharsis. Her stage outfits were colourful and bright, yet she always harboured such sadness in her eyes - but hope too with the flowers that she adorned her hair.

With the arrival of colour TV, her red lips and outfits brought a new spark of life to people grieving in the wake of war. She also loved her dog and was one of the first Black women to show that Black people desired soft lives, but the politics of their oppressors would not allow them to live simple lives. Her whole life was blighted with tragedy, ending in her death caused by cirrhosis of the liver at the age of just 44.

1950-1960s: The Afro

Diana Ross
Source: Shutterstock

Freedom! Hair freedom! The Afro was born. Flared trousers, tight turtlenecks, hippie dresses, flower power, peace, love, and above all, sparks of revolution and resistance, reigned supreme amongst young Black people in the years following WWII.

People like Claudia Jones, mother of the Notting Hill Carnival, made a huge impact over here in the UK. When it came to style, there was a certain feeling of freedom to incorporate different colours and textures such as suede, leather, lace and cotton into one outfit. This gave rise to Woodstock in the late 1960s which was also a revolutionary moment in music history.

It would be impossible to narrow down just one pioneer of Black fashion and beauty during this era as so many people contributed to it including the likes of Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Marsha P. Johnson.

1970s: Grace Jones

Grace Jones
Source: Saxon

During this period, the more shocking the fashion, the better, and Grace Jones perfectly personified this every time she showed up on the catwalk or at one of her shows. This woman took the Black fashion and beauty world by storm.

Dark skin was never seen as a symbol of beauty until Grace Jones came on the scene, with dark Black people being rejected even amongst the Black community. However, Jones broke the modelling standards and consequently paved the way for so many dark-skinned women. Praise to this queen who, unlike so many others, decided to stay true to herself and not conform to the beauty standards of the 1970s.

1980s: Iman

Photographer: Axell Kull

In the 1980s, Somalian model Iman burst onto the scene, bringing African beauty and grace to the modelling world. This was an important turn for the African diaspora whilst the continent was being ravaged by poverty and AIDS. Here, she made monochrome outfits and softness as an attribute to a community of Black people who had always been portrayed as violent and if not violent, poor and in need.

1990s: Naomi Campbell

Naomi Campbell
Source: Sipa

Following in the steps of Iman, Naomi Campbell continued to show the world that Black people could have beautiful bodies, amazing skin, and a certain sense of classiness. In contrast to the shock factor of Grace Jones, Naomi brought a touch of elegance to Black fashion.

She was often accused of putting her "blackness" aside and embracing high-class, white society as a means of making it in the industry. However, she has spoken up about the difficulties and discrimination that she faced as a woman of colour within the modelling world and was one of the first models to do this. She has recently proclaimed an affinity with Afrobeats singers such as Wizkid and has expressed many times her love of African Fashion.

2000s-2010s: Beyoncé

Photographer: Matt Baron

Black fashion in the 2000s and 2010s was all about empowerment. Arguably the world’s most successful woman, Beyoncé has not only inspired millions of Black girls with her music but also as a businesswoman and a style icon. Amidst the storm of the gender pay gap, abortion rights and feminism, songs such as If I Were a Boy and Run the World (Girls) or her iconic album, Lemonade, gave us the spark needed to challenge patriarchal society.

2020s: Afro-Caribbean fashion, Tongoro

Photographer: Sunday Alamba 

Africa has now become a holiday dream destination, far from the continent once ravaged by AIDS, Ebola and desperate poverty. Afro-Caribbean fashion now has a place in mainstream society with Tongoro being one of the first African-owned luxury brands to enter the world of high fashion.

Founder Sarah Diouf is of Senegalese origin but was born on the Ivory Coast and her clothes are worn by Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell, and many other celebrities. Black fashion is increasingly becoming reflective of its origins and no longer as westernised.

Black African and Caribbean fashion is on the rise partly thanks to Dancehall and Afrobeat music embracing Black fashion and beauty in their music videos and the Black community is now willing more than ever to explore natural hairstyles and embrace Afro-Caribbean designs.