First Black model for couture, Dorothea Church, dead at age 83

Dorothea Towles Church, the first professional African American model to walk the fashion runways of French couture designers in Paris, died at age 83 on July 7th.

Church died at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. The cause was complications from heart and kidney disease, said Michael Henry Adams, a friend to the Los Angeles Times.

Church left for Paris in the late forties, after some modeling experience in Los Angeles, Church went overseas with her sister, Lois, a music student who planned to study there.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Church “called on several French designers and was hired at Christian Dior to fill in for a house model who was on vacation. From Dior, Church went to work for Elsa Schiaparelli and, later, Pierre Balmain.”

Church found no resistance to her skin color in Paris, and remained there to work.

In a 2004 interview with Women’s Wear Daily. “For once I was not considered black, African American or Negro. I was just an American,” Church recalled.  
The French fashion establishment “treated you like a queen,” she said.

According to the Times, “The fashion industry in the United States was not the same. While Church was working for Balmain in the early 1950s, editors of Ebony, the African American magazine, asked about photographing some of his latest styles. Balmain’s publicist turned them down, concerned that it would hurt sales among Balmain’s white customers in the United States, Church said later.”

“They didn’t think that African American women would buy the clothes, that they could buy the clothes,” Church said of Balmain’s business staff in an interview for the 1998 book “Black and Beautiful” by Barbara Summers.

“That’s where my education and my experience came in,” Church said. “I knew about black history and black society.”

She graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and then moved to Los Angeles to live with an uncle. Church enrolled at the Dorothy Farrier Charm and Modeling School, where she was the only African American student. She was raised in a community of professional people in Texarkana, Texas.

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