Celebrating African Americans in Fashion

By A.J. Muhammad, Librarian III
April 7, 2017
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

On February 27, 2017, Model Behavior, a program featuring a talk between Pat Cleveland and Coco Mitchell, two legendary African American models, was held at the Schomburg Center. The conversation, moderated by author and fashion industry expert Constance C.R. White, was held in conjunction with FIT’s exhibit Black Fashion Designers that runs through May 16, 2017. It was a packed event as audience members listened intently as both women discussed how they were catapulted into modeling, traveled the globe and worked with some of the most influential fashion designers of their time. Although it is was an unforgettable one night only event,  a livestream of the program is available.

The program and FIT exhibit is the perfect opportunity to highlight collections and resources at the Schomburg Center about notable African American designers and models from Cleveland and Mitchell’s era.   


Read about the continuum of African American designers (from Elizabeth Keckley to Tracey Reese) whose fashions have shaped the look of the U.S. from the 19th century through the early 21st centuries in the book Threads of Time: the Fabric of History: Profiles of African American dressmakers and designers, 1850-2002

Jon Haggins (with model and actor Tookie Smith,  left, and two unidentified women on the right)

Fashion Collection
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Photographs and Print Division
Photographer: Carlo Alabanese

From the 1960s onward Jon Haggins’ designs were seen on the covers and inside popular magazines and dozens of other publications and his clothes were also carried at major department stores. In the Jon Haggins Fashion Archive, you will find sketches, correspondence from the publications that featured his outfits, and other items that document his career as a fashion heavy hitter.

Later in life, the multitalented Haggins also performed as a vocalist in New York City’s trendiest night clubs,  writes about travel extensively and hosts a series called Globe Trotter TV. Haggins authored an autobiography, Yes I Can: A memoir The African-American Travel Guide To Hot, Exotic, and Fun Filled Places and a follow up book, Chasing Wild ASS

Stephen Burrows was a contemporary of Jon Haggins. He made a splash in the early 1970s as the only Black designer to be selected along with four other American designers—including Bill Blass and Anne Klein—to face off against French designers in a fashion show held as part of the festivities surrounding the restoration of King Louis XIV’s palace in Versailles. The Battle of Versailles recounts this transformative moment in fashion and Burrows’ role in that high stakes competition that revolutionized the industry and launched Burrows to success. Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced  is a companion book to a 2013 Museum of the City of New York exhibit featuring a retrospective of Burrows’ stunning signature creations from 1970s some of which were worn by celebrities including Diana Ross, Susan Sarandon, Cher, Grace Jones, Bette Midler and Pat Cleveland.

Patrick Kelly

Fashion  Collection
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Photograph and Prints Division
Photographer: Jean-François Gaté

Patrick Kelly combined his southern sensibilities with high fashion, and became a smash in the 1980s and his designs were available internationally. The Patrick Kelly Archive provides a window into the world of this genius at the height of his success who made a huge impact in the fashion industry before he died at the age of 35. The Patrick Kelley collection of audio-visual recordings featuring Kelly’s fashion shows and interviews, which are housed in the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, have been digitized. However, researchers may view the these recordings online through NYPL’s Digital Collection portal onsite at the Schomburg Center, or NYPL’s other research and branch libraries only.

The Fashion collection in the Photographs and Prints Division contains photographs of African American designers, including the above mentioned designers (Kelly, Haggins, and Burrows) and more.


Naomi Sims

Naomi Sims Portrait Collection
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Photographs and Prints
Photographer unknown

Long before Tyra Banks instructed aspiring models on her competitive reality TV series "America’s Next Top Model" on how to smile with your eyes (“smizing”) and putting them through extreme photo shoots challenges, Naomi Sims broke barriers in the 1960s as a successful model turned entrepreneur, author and philanthropist. She penned the 1979 book How To Be a Top Model  in which she offered practical advice to would be models and answered the question, “Naomi, How Did You Do It?"  

As an entrepreneur, Sims developed a line of wigs for African American women and she enlisted her beauty industry cohorts, including Beverly Johnson and Alva Chinn, to model her wigs for advertisements. Sims also wroteAll About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman and All About Success For the Black Woman. The Naomi Sims Papers  archival collection contains the research and manuscripts for Sims’ books, correspondence, and 1970s fashion industry ephemera including composite cards of her fellow models.

Pat Cleveland, a ubiquitous presence on runways and fashion magazines during her heyday, got her start as a teen modeling for Ebony Fashion Fair shows which were produced and curated by Eunice Johnson (the wife of the media mogul John H. Johnson whose publications included Ebony and Jet). Cleveland, who lived in Europe for a time also, owned her own modeling agency. Cleveland wrote about her remarkable life in her 2016 memoir Walking With Muses. She’s also a published poet and her book In the Spirit of Grace contains a poem for everyday of the year!  

Like Naomi Sims, the model Beverly Johnson diversified her career by also becoming an author and her books include Beverly Johnson’s Guide to a Life of Health and Beauty: A Plan For Looking Good and Feeling Terrific, True Beauty: Secrets of Radiant Beauty for Women of Every Age and Color and most recently her controversial memoir The Face That Changed It All.

Iman, a peer of Sims, Cleveland and Johnson, also launched a highly successful business after a long career as a model and artist. She tells her story  in the book I Am Iman which contains iconic phots of Iman throughout her career.

Model, recording artist, actor, and fashion icon Grace Jones, who also rose to acclaim in the 1970s, may have turned down multiple offers to write an autobiography, but she finally gave in with I’ll Never Write My Memoirs.

Of course, it would be impossible to discuss fashion without the veteran fashion editor and personality Andre Leon Talley whose memoir A.L.T. details his journey from the American south as a young man to working side by side with Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland.

Share who your favorite African American models and designers are from the last three decades of the 20th century and come to the Schomburg Center to find out what's in the collection on them!