Nicole L. Cvetnic is The Root’s multimedia editor and producer.
Whether they’re bold, sophisticated or classic, there is no doubt that African-American women have been fashion trendsetters for generations. To celebrate their style and elegance this Women’s History Month, we turned to the new book Vintage Black Glamour by Nichelle Gainer, who presents a carefully curated collection of iconic and rarely seen photographs of glamorous women. Packed with profiles and photographs of famous 20th-century actresses, dancers, writers and entertainers, this beautifully crafted book also focuses on women whose lives and influence on style have often been overlooked. Here are some of the women Gainer selected.
In 1971, friends Janice-Marie Johnson, Hazel Payne, Perry Kibble and Donald Ray Johnson formed the funk-disco-R&B band A Taste of Honey. After the Los Angeles-based group were signed by Capitol Records in 1978, their song “Boogie Oogie Oogie” soared to No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts for three consecutive weeks, eventually earning them a Grammy Award for best new artist. By 1980 the foursome had only two members: Janice-Marie Johnson and Payne.
Born in Trinidad in 1919 and raised in New York City, the dancer and choreographer began her career after receiving a scholarship from the New Dance Group. In 1949, with the help of a grant, she spent more than a year in Central and West Africa collecting material and documenting dances, many of them fading into history. Primus eventually opened the Pearl Primus School of Primal Dance in New York City.
Anderson, born in 1905, learned to sing at an early age at St. Mary’s Convent in her hometown of Gilroy, Calif. After receiving two years of vocal training from Sara Ritt at the Nunnie H. Burroughs Institution in Washington, D.C., Anderson went on to become a professional jazz singer. According to jazz critic Nat Hentoff, Duke Ellington considered her the singer “who best embodied the band’s resilient spirit.”
Born in 1926 to Haitian parents, the Broadway actress grew up in New York City and Haiti and studied dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham. Premice was nominated for Tony Awards for her performances in the musicals Jamaica and A Hand Is on the Gate. Her final stage performance was in the first professional all-black production of Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie in 1989 at the Cleveland Playhouse.
Known in the 1970s as the Queen of Disco, the singer and songwriter’s debut performance was at her church at the age of 10 when the original singer did not show up. The five-time Grammy Award winner, born in 1948, was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and four No. 1 singles within a 12-month period.
Born the granddaughter of a slave in 1883 in North Carolina, Brown became a teacher and eventually founded the Palmer Memorial Institute, a Southern prep school for African-American students. While she was teaching in the rural community of Sedalia, N.C., her school fell into disrepair and closed only months after she’d started there. After tirelessly raising funds, Brown launched the Palmer prep school in Sedalia and named it after her adviser and friend Alice Freeman Palmer, the second president of Wellesley College.
The actress and singer, born in 1917 in Brooklyn, N.Y., is best-known for films such as Stormy Weather and The Wiz. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and as a child, Horne would often accompany her mother, who belonged to several traveling theater troupes, on the road. She left school at the age of 16 to become a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Horne went on to appear in several Broadway shows, win several Grammys and even sing at Carnegie Hall. She was known for refusing to play roles that stereotyped African-American women and for her work with civil rights groups.
Born in 1906 in St. Louis, Baker ran away from home at age 13 to work as a waitress at a club. She was soon touring the U.S. with the Jones Family Band and doing comedic skits for the Dixie Steppers. Known as the Black Venus, she moved to Paris in the 1920s, soon becoming one of Europe’s most popular and highest-paid performers. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II and devoted much of her life to fighting racism and segregation in the United States.
Born Marjorie Smith in 1910 in Harlem, she dropped out of Hunter College and began her career as a dancer at the Cotton Club. After learning ballroom dancing and adopting the stage name Margot Webb, she and partner Harold Norton performed on the black vaudeville circuit as “Norton and Margot” in the 1930s and 1940s. They were one of only a few African-American ballroom dancers. After struggling for years to find work, she eventually became a physical education teacher.
The wife of singer Nat King Cole was born in 1922 in North Carolina. She left college in Boston to pursue a jazz career in New York City and was eventually hired by Duke Ellington to be a vocalist for his band, Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. In 1946 Maria Cole began appearing as the opening act for the Mills Brothers at Club Zanzibar in Harlem, and it was there that Nat King Cole saw her sing and was instantly smitten. The couple went on to marry and have five children.
The singer, a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University and Columbia University, was the lead actress in Harry Belafonte’s off-Broadway production Sing, Man, Sing. Tynes recorded the jazz suite A Drum Is a Woman with Duke Ellington and made numerous appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1961 she gained international attention for her role as Salome at the Spoleto Festival of the Two Worlds in Italy.
The pianist and composer, who was born in 1910 and grew up in Pittsburgh, began playing professionally by the age of 7. Her mother started training her after the musical prodigy played a song she had just heard on the family’s pump organ. Throughout her career, Williams performed in gambling dens and nightclubs and on vaudeville stages. Her musical styles evolved from swing to blues to bebop to spiritual. When she died in 1981, she left behind more than 350 compositions.
Best known for singing jazz, folk and blues music in the 1950s and 1960s, Simone was also a civil rights activist who wrote songs to promote the movement. Born in 1933 in North Carolina, she sang in her church choir and learned to play the piano at the age of 4. She received a scholarship to study classical piano at the Juilliard School in New York City but dropped out after running out of money. Often called the High Priestess of Soul, she released her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958.
The dancer and second wife of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson rose to fame after performing at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where she was known for dancing atop an enormous drum. Born in 1915 and raised in New York City, Edna Mae Robinson toured Europe with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway in the 1930s. She stopped performing to support her husband’s boxing career. The couple divorced in 1962, and she began appearing on TV in variety shows and in cabaret productions. She also appeared onstage in an all-black version of Born Yesterday.
The daughter of Ibrahim Mabdi from the Sudanese village of El Fasher, the princess was discovered by producer Walter Futter when he was scouting locations for a movie. Though speaking no English, she quickly rose to fame after co-starring in the British film Jericho in 1937. When she first arrived in Paris, she thought that European clothes were “ridiculous” and “too scanty” and walked out in disgust after being taken to a cabaret.
The jazz and pop vocalist is best-known by many for her version of “Send in the Clowns” and the early hit “Broken-Hearted Melody.” Born in 1924 in Newark, N.J., to musician parents, she won a talent competition at the Apollo Theater in 1942 that launched her singing career. Vaughan worked with Billy Eckstine and Earl Hines before becoming a solo performer. She was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1990.
A singer since childhood, Bassey has recorded numerous hits, including the theme songs for three James Bond movies: “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Moonraker.” Bassey was born in 1937 in Cardiff, Wales, to an English mother and a Nigerian father. Her first agent, Mike Sullivan, heard her sing and decided to manage her career, determined to make her a star. She released her first single, “Burn My Candle,” when she was only 19 years old.
Considered one of the most successful female groups in the world, Sister Sledge—Kathy, Debbie, Kim and Joni, shown here—got their start singing at the Williams Temple C.M.E. Church in their hometown of Philadelphia. With the help of their grandmother Viola Williams, a former opera singer, they began performing at civic, political, charity and philanthropic events under the name Mrs. Williams’ Grandchildren. In 1979 they released their breakthrough album, We Are Family, which soared to the top of both pop and R&B charts and passed the RIAA Platinum mark.
Born in 1901 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the jazz singer began as a chorus member in the musical Shuffle Along in 1921. While touring Europe as a star of Chocolate Kiddies, Hall met Duke Ellington. In 1927 they recorded the song “Creole Love Call,” where Hall used her voice to sound like a jazz instrument. The new vocal technique was called scat. She became a well-known musical figure during the Harlem Renaissance, headlined at the Cotton Club, toured the vaudeville circuit and appeared in two Broadway shows.
The actress once shared with a reporter that her “greatest ambition was to be known someday as a great Negro actress.” Born in Houston in 1906, Harris studied music and briefly pursued a career in theater before switching to acting. She appeared as a maid in several films of the 1930s and 1940s, but she refused to comply with the mammy stereotype. Though most of her appearances remain uncredited, she is best-known for her role in Baby Face.