27 Of Our Favorite Black Fashion Icons from Billie Holiday to Michelle Obama
For far too long, vestiges of Black culture have been misappropriated—especially when it comes to fashion and beauty. Take, for example, the hoop earrings currently thread through your earlobes. Or Louis Vuitton's recent snafu with a sweater that was designed as an homage to the Jamaican flag—but it was knit in the wrong colors. In other words, it's high time to celebrate authentic Black excellence in the world of style. A good start? These 27 Black fashion icons that have no doubt have inspired some of the clothes you’re wearing today. From Billie Holiday to Michelle Obama (and, of course, Rihanna), feast your eyes on these stylish heroes.
1. Josephine Baker
A St. Louis-born entertainer, Josephine Baker was known for her glitz and glam from Harlem to Paris. But it wasn’t all sparkly dresses and marabou feathers; the singer and dancer was also a Civil Rights activist and part of the French Resistance.
2. Eartha Kitt
Born on a cotton plantation, Eartha Kitt’s career took her from Broadway to the big screen (and even the TV screen for her role as Catwoman in Batman). And the feline theme doesn’t end there; Kitt was known for rocking leopard print on the regular in the ‘60s, well ahead of her time. By the following decade, she made silk turbans her thing, but regardless, she lived up to her self-appointed title as “the original material girl.”
3. Billie Holiday
She was undeniably one of the most talented jazz singers of all-time, but Billie Holiday also knew how to dress to the nines for an unforgettable stage presence. What were her signatures? A penchant for off-the-shoulder frocks in soft silk or satin, accessorized with statement-making jewelry and of course, gorgeous updos with flowers. Holiday was even arrested in style in 1949; per Vogue she was dressed in a mink coat, a flawless turban and a pair of dark sunglasses.
4. Donyale Luna
You might not be familiar with her name, but Donyale Luna has largely been credited as the first black supermodel, one who paved the way for dozens to follow in her stiletto-clad footsteps. The Detroit-born stunner swiftly rose to notoriety after being photographed by Richard Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar in 1965 and not long after, she decamped for London and became the first Black model to cover British Vogue. Her cadre of famous and rock ‘n’ roll friends might have kept her in the public eye, but Luna’s beauty was what made her into an iconic figure of the Swinging Sixties
5. Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge started out on the nightclub circuit in New York, where she and her sister garnered attention for their bejeweled mermaid dresses. She eventually became a full-fledged movie star, replete with glamorous gowns, flawlessly coiffed hair and sparkling jewels to match. She was also the first Black woman to be nominated for an Oscar, for best actress in 1955 for her role in Carmen Jones.
6. Nina Simone
“I want to be a rich Black bitch,” the iconic jazz singer once stated. And to be fair, Simone definitely dressed the part in her show-stopping evening gowns and loud prints that she played up with bold turbans and sunglasses. By the late ‘60s, when she used her public stance and music to become a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Simone began dressing for that part, too, opting for more serious maxi dresses—while still accessorizing with aplomb.
7. Diahann Carroll
Unafraid to rock teeny shorts with tall boots or to don a caped pink silk dress for the red carpet, Diahann Carroll served unforgettable looks from the moment she emerged on the scene in 1954. A groundbreaking actress best known for her starring role in Julia, an NBC sitcom that debuted in 1968, Carroll defied the stereotypically offensive roles that Black women and men were typecast in at the time.
8. Diana Ross
Whether she was crooning with The Supremes or striking out on her own, Diana Ross epitomized ‘70s glamour. With help from legendary costume designer Bob Mackie, the Motown singer made sequins, marabou feathers, scene-stealing jumpsuits and vibrant colors her calling card. (FYI, she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer at one point.) And her hair? Well, from sky-high bouffants to gorgeous, teased-out afros, there’s hardly a style Ross didn’t master.
9. Cicely Tyson
Before she was a cinema star—and before she received an honorary Oscar—Cicely Tyson was an in-demand model who was scouted on the street at 30 years old. Endlessly elegant, she was always dressed in the chicest garb of the moment, whether it was a caftan at the 1974 Emmy Awards (where she took home two statues) or the many B. Michael designs she wore after befriending the designer. She was also a longtime champion of Black beauty, proudly wearing her natural hair, cornrows or a full afro during an era when few women were confident to do so.
10. Beverly Johnson
As a top model during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Beverly Johnson had many firsts: She was the first Black model on the covers of Vogue and French Elle, and she went on to land over 500 magazine covers during her career. She turned her glamorous reputation into a lifestyle, going on to write books, appear in movies, become an entrepreneur and emerge as a champion for inclusivity in fashion.
This model was honored by the CFDA with The Fashion Icon Award in 2010, so you can trust she has a keen sartorial sense. In her acceptance speech, she looked at her husband David Bowie and quipped: “Now I can finally say to my husband, ‘Move over, you’re not the only icon in the house.’” The Somalian stunner got her start in the ‘70s, walking the runways for Versace, Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier, but it was the outsized silhouettes she wore on her days off that solidified her icon status. Synonymous with palazzo pants and frilly, feminine frocks, Iman was all about taking sartorial risks—and they definitely paid off.
12. Angela Davis
The Civil Rights movement coincided with the Black is Beautiful movement, and with her gorgeous afro, Angela Davis was a leader in both. A proponent for natural hair, Davis could often be found making impassioned speeches in the finest ‘70s garb, from knotted neckerchiefs and flared jeans to chic clogs.
13. Donna Summer
Of course the “queen of disco” had a delightfully splashy, colorful wardrobe to go along with her smooth vocals. We’re talking glitter, fur, lurex and sequins, from bodysuits to fringe and everything in between. Few individuals leaned into the over-the-top sheen of ‘70s glam quite like Summer.
14. Tina Turner
Big hair, big voice and big style is how we’d describe Tina Turner’s lasting mark. The “Proud Mary” crooner started out singing soul but found her niche in rock ‘n’ roll, and her style followed suit. When she wasn’t showing off her legs in flashy showgirl frocks, Turner could be found in glitzy jumpsuits.
15. Grace Jones
As a regular at Studio 54, this singer, actress, Bond girl and model became synonymous with boundary-pushing outfits that played up her androgynous appearance—and made her fodder for club photographers. From oversized headpieces to her signature wide-shoulder suits, Jones finished off almost every outfit with a colorful splash of makeup.
16. Naomi Campbell
Perhaps one of the biggest models of the '90s, Naomi Campbell was among the crowd known as the Supers because they were that iconic. Whether she was stepping out to hit the clubs with Kate Moss in matching slinky mini dresses or carrying out her community service in a Dolce & Gabbana frock, Watts has remained a timeless muse for fashion’s most talented designers.
17. Tyra Banks
She may have taught us how to smize and work our angles through her role on America’s Next Top Model, but Tyra Banks was a household name long before she was a reality TV judge. Hitting her stride in the ‘90s, she was often photographed off the runway in the cool grunge plaid shirts and distressed denim jackets that were oh-so-popular at the time. And that mega-watt smile? Yeah, that can’t replicated by just anyone.
18. Erykah Badu
As her love for towering hats, stacks upon stacks of jewelry and thigh-grazing hair prove, Erykah Badu is a master at accessorizing. The singer rose to fame in the late ‘90s and stood apart from the rest due to her penchant for dressing in Rastafarian colors with headwraps to match. But her fashion knowledge runs deep: She’s credited with helping make Pyer Moss designer Kerby Moss a smashing success after styling his fall fashion show in 2016 and was even tapped by Riccardo Tisci to star in a Givenchy campaign in 2014.
She’s called Queen Bey for a reason; few can compare to her sense of style. From her Destiny’s Child days (remember all those matching ensembles that were sewn by her mom, Tina Knowles?) to the naked dress she wore to the Met Gala in 2015—plus every single visual-heavy music video she’s ever created—Beyoncé just might be one of the best dressed women of the century.
Listen, Solange is more than just Beyoncé’s little sister; she’s a remarkable singer in her own right with the ability to pull off the most avant-garde getups. Unafraid to wear wildly futuristic Iris Van Herpen couture and bold enough to create an epic wedding weekend (with outfit changes to match) that instantly became Pinterest gold, Solange has true range when it comes to style.
21. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama used her time as First Lady to champion small, local American designers, carving out her lifetime role as a fashion icon. And much like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, she was responsible for sparking quite a number of trends during the years she resided in the White House, from mixing high-end designers with budget finds to belting anything and everything. And Obama’s headline-making outfits didn’t stop after those eight years were up; we all waited with bated breath to see what she would wear on each stop of her Becoming book tour.
Choosing just one picture to illustrate Rihanna’s incomparable style is a truly grueling task. The singer-turned-entrepreneur might be keeping us waiting on her next album, but at least she keeps us guessing on what she’ll step out in next. From turning wine glasses into a must-have accessory to pulling off a $22K heart-shaped fur coat (with denim shorts), she’s truly one of the best dressed women of the decade.
23. Tracee Ellis Ross
It’s clear that Blackish actress Tracee Ellis Ross loves Fashion (with a capital ‘F’)—but she’s never afraid to accessorize her over-the-top or fresh-off-the-runway look with a genuine grin. While she might have picked up a few style tips from her mom, Diana, it’s clear that Ellis Ross has taste all of her own.
Even when she was just a Disney star, Zendaya stood out from her fellow teens by embracing bright colors and daring silhouettes. But once she broke free from the channel’s chains (and joined forces with stylist Law Roach) she began landing on the top of Best Dressed lists. From that Tom Ford breastplate to the Little Mermaid-inspired emerald corseted gown she wore to the 2019 Emmy’s, this burgeoning talent has solidified her status as a fashion force to be reckoned with.
25. Lupita Nyong’o
Remember when the 12 Years a Slave actress showed up at the Oscars in a Cinderella blue Prada gown—with a tiara to match? Yeah, that was kinda the moment that she started getting recognition for her impeccable style. Unafraid of bright colors, playful embellishments and statement-making makeup, it’s always a good award season when Nyong’o is nominated.
26. Paloma Elsesser
If you’re not familiar with her name, you might want to follow Paloma Elsesser on Instagram ASAP. Not only did she just land a cover of Vogue (that was the first cover styled by Black woman, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson) but she was the first plus-size model to walk the runway at Fendi and Lanvin. Professional achievements aside, Elsesser’s personal style is envy-worthy, ripe with cool cut-outs, bright colors and ‘man, I wish I could wear that’ ensembles.
Not only is Lizzo a major leader in the body positivity movement, but the three-time Grammy award winning singer, rapper, songwriter and flutist has become a trailblazer both on and off the red carpet. She’s proven that she’s not afraid to test out any trend, whether it’s a teeny tiny purse or a quintini (that’s a combo bikini and face mask)—and have fun while doing it.