Naomi Sims: Groundbreaking Black Model Died Last Week

Laurie says:

We don’t usual blog about supermodels, but Naomi Sims is the exception.

The New York Times discussed her in their obituary.

Naomi Sims, whose appearance as the first black model on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1968 was a consummate moment of the Black is Beautiful movement, and who went on to design successful collections of wigs and cosmetics for black women under her name, died Saturday in Newark.

Naomi was the first,” the designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”


Ms. Sims often said childhood insecurities and a painful upbringing — living in foster homes, towering over her classmates and living in a largely poor white neighborhood in Pittsburgh — had inspired her to strive to become “somebody really important” at a time when cultural perceptions of black Americans were being challenged by the civil rights movement and a renewed stress on racial pride.

When Ms. Sims arrived in New York on a scholarship to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1966, there was very little interest in fashion for black models and only a handful who had been successful…

In need of money, Ms. Sims, with her heart-shaped face and long limbs, was encouraged by classmates and counselors to give it a try. But every agency she approached turned her down, some telling her that her skin was too dark.

She started her career by courage and persistence among other things approaching a photographer for the Times.  That resulted in her being on the cover of Fashions of the Times in 1967.

Two images of Ms. Sims — one from the 1967 Times fashion magazine cover and the other from a 1969 issue of Life — are in the current Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “The Model as Muse.” In a catalog, the curators Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan wrote, “The beautifully contoured symmetry of Sims’s face and the lithe suppleness of her body presented on the once-exclusionary pages of high-fashion journals were evidence of the wider societal movement of Black Pride and the full expression of ‘Black is Beautiful.’ ”

“It’s ‘in’ to use me,” she said early on, “and maybe some people do it when they don’t really like me. But even if they are prejudiced, they have to be tactful if they want a good picture.”

In 1973, Ms. Sims decided to start her own business. As a model, she often did her own hair and makeup, since many studio assistants were unfamiliar with working with darker skin. And she noticed that most commercially available wigs were designed for Caucasian hair, so she began experimenting with her own designs, baking synthetic hairs in her oven at home to create the right texture to look like straightened black hair. Within five years, her designs, produced by the Metropa Company, had annual sales of $5 million.

Obviously we have severely mixed feelings (mostly negative ) about supermodels and modeling, but in her time Naomi Sims was a hero.

Thanks to Onyx Lynx for the pointer.

3 thoughts on “Naomi Sims: Groundbreaking Black Model Died Last Week

  1. I’m very glad you posted this despite your mixed feelings. I share those feelings but at a time when it seems that in popular culture all black woman must be the same shade of light brown to be considered beautiful it is refreshing to even look at these old pictures of Naomi Sims.

  2. Hmmm. We’ve blogged a good deal about the fashion industry without talking about mixed feelings about supermodels.

    Speaking just for myself, I have extremely mixed feelings about the context in which supermodels are created and the pressures that are placed on them, but I don’t actually have mixed feelings about the women themselves.

  3. Samira,

    I agree, and that’s one of the reasons that she is still really important.


    While I think context is always significant, I do think that we bear responsibility for what we do and its effects on others, so my feelings about supermodels continue to be mixed.

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