She Broke the Color Barrier on Seventh Avenue

Model Beverly Valdes may have been an unknown black model, but that didn’t stop her from applying for jobs previously reserved only for white girls.

Twenty-three-year-old model Beverly Valdes needed a job. Her race had limited her to “Negro fashion shows,” and two major houses had recently told her that she was too small and too tall. As they say, the third time’s the charm: Valdes answered an advertisement placed a month earlier by French-born designer Pauline Trigère, and beat out 40 other hopefuls to represent Trigère’s clothing on Seventh Avenue. According to the New York Times article that broke the news on June 23, 1961, the designer picked Valdes simply because she possessed “a long waist, good shoulders and a good neck.” As for those customers who would not want to buy a dress worn by a black women, Trigère later told the Times, “We only lost one customer in Birmingham, Alabama. We didn’t miss her.”

Perhaps Trigère’s French sensibility made her colorblind when it came to beauty. She’d already dressed black model Bani Yelverton in eveningwear for the October 14, 1958, issue of Look magazine. New York designers were far behind Paris fashion houses in hiring black models. Christian Dior, for one, had dressed Dorothea Towles as early as 1949. Ophelia De Vore, president of the Grace Del Marco Model Agency—New York’s only exclusively black agency—saw the greener pastures in Paris and in 1960 took models Helen Williams and La Jeune Hundley there. The women booked gigs with the House of Dior and Jean Dessès while stateside they were still restricted to only working black shows. But Asian models were becoming accepted on Seventh Avenue (again, after the French broke the race barrier first), a signal that Americans were open to celebrating different kinds of beauty.

A year after making history, Valdes was still working for Trigère, but was no longer the lone black model on Seventh Avenue. On June 29, 1962, Life published “Negro Models—a Band of Beautiful Pioneers,” a story that celebrated Valdes along with models Hundley and Mozella Roberts, wearing Tiffeau & Busch ready-to-wear and Arnold Scaasi couture, respectively. Life’s accompanying fashion editorial featured Liz Campbell wearing splashy, colorful designs, and described her as “exotic as the new clothes themselves.”

Okay. It was the early ’60s and black models were still anomalies, but doors were opened. Later that year, Hundley reached the highest plateau of high fashion when she modeled furs in the October issue of American Vogue.

By the 1970s, the Civil Rights Movement had inspired the “Black is Beautiful” campaign and black models were some of the busiest women working in New York. A barrier had been broken, but as Trigère explained to Life in 1962, “I didn’t choose Beverly to make history. I chose her because of her good features.” —Rachel Chambers

Photo credits: top: Life magazine; bottom: The New York Times

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