Few things date history as readily as fashion. The caveat “that was the fashion of the times” can be applied to everything from bustles and corsets to micro-mini skirts and polyester pants suits — fashions at the turn of the twentieth century and styles created during the 1960s-'70s.
While designs have changed over the years, one thing remained the same: from department store catalogs to high-end fashion magazines, the models dressed in the latest fashions were white.
So it was a major event when Katiti Kironde appeared in the August 1968 issue of Glamour College, the first African American to appear on a American fashion magazine's cover. Six years later, in August 1974, Beverly Johnson became the first African American woman featured on the cover of Vogue magazine — the industry's supreme publication. It was another landmark.
Like virtually everything else on the path to equal opportunity for African Americans, progress was slow and came in steps, not leaps. So when an African American woman first appeared in one of the fashion industry's premier magazines, it was not on a cover or with a huge, multi-page layout.
Instead, seven years before Kironde's Glamour cover, a coed at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Willette Murphy, quietly appeared on the pages of the August 1961 issue of another hugely popular magazine, Mademoiselle.
Murphy, now Willette Klausner, was pictured wearing a simple skirt, top and jacket, and walking on the UCLA campus. Initially, she viewed the moment as “just another thing I'd done.”
Photo Courtesy of Ms. Klausner
Far from it: Willette Murphy's appearance in the magazine was not merely “just another thing.” Her Mademoiselle photograph was groundbreaking. Yet, Murphy was unaware of her place in history, until a New York Times' reporter contacted her family. “I guess my sister found out when the New York Times called my parents,” Klausner said in a published interview.
Her family was used to Willette achieving things African Americans rarely experienced at that time — she was UCLA's first black senior class president, for example — but the call from the Times made the family realize that their daughter had made history.
For decades, in high powered fashion magazines like Vogue, Glamour and Mademoiselle, to the Sears and Roebuck and other mail order catalogs, to models walking runways in Paris and New York, the face of fashion had been white.
Images of African Americans were scarce even in popular, mainstream American magazines. Many white Americans were shocked when Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American female to appear on the cover of LIFE in November, 1954. It would be nearly four years later before another black American, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, would find his way onto that magazine's front page. Another African American female celebrity would not grace LIFE's cover again until the December 8, 1967 issue which featured Pearl Bailey.
Imagine growing up black and female and seeing dress after dress, swimsuit after swimsuit, shoe after shoe — all pictured only on white women. Along with every other message sent to African Americans, this underscored the sense that African Americans were, to a great degree, nonexistent — even when it came to buying clothes.
Today fashion marketers, like marketers from every other industry, recognize that the face of America is as diverse as its people. They also recognize that African Americans' buying power was estimated at $913 billion in 2009. A University of Georgia economics study projects that figure will rise to $1.2 trillion in 2013 — nearly 9% of the country's estimated purchasing strength.
Today the power of the African American pocketbook is reflected on the covers of countless magazines — fashion, entertainment, and political publications which routinely feature black models, entertainers, authors, politicians and more.
Today, it is no longer shocking to walk into a supermarket and find an African American on a magazine cover. In March 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on the cover of Vogue, only the second first lady to do so. In recent years Vogue has seen a number of black women grace its cover.
Photo Courtesy of Ms. Klausner
Sometimes history is made in giant leaps. More often, however, it is made in smaller, sometimes unexpected steps. Willette Murphy Klausner would become the first black merchandising executive at Bloomingdale's, later the first female corporate vice president at MCA Universal Studios and, together with Julia Child and Robert Mondavi, the co-founder of the American Institute of Wine and Food in 1981. Today, she is a successful theater producer.
It is her photo in Mademoiselle that we celebrate today. A picture that would launch thousands more.