Go ahead and Google: Ophelia DeVore. “Ophelia started out as a model, but then she owned a modeling agency. She was a lighter-skinned woman with an ambiguous look. When she signed with an agency, she didn’t tell them that she was Black. She thought they knew—until she overheard the agency tell someone that they didn’t take Black models. And she said, “Umm…you don’t?”
Taniqua Russ is a content creator and the host of Black Fashion History, a podcast that focuses on Black people’s contributions to the fashion industry across time periods.
I’ve been interested in fashion for as long as I can remember. I studied journalism and fashion, merchandising, and design as a minor. I was learning a lot about fashion and costume history but not a lot about African Americans or African people in the diaspora that made contributions to fashion.
When I moved to New York for graduate school, I was working as a sample assistant. I’d be asking people about their favorite Black designers or brands, and no one could name anybody—so I decided to start doing my own research. I was like, I’m going to do something that will share this information, tell people’s stories, and give somebody a place to look to if they’re interested in learning more about Black fashion history.
I get DMs about potential subjects, or it’s sparked by my own personal interests and what I’m reading at the time. Sometimes while researching, I’ll stumble across a line in a vintage Jet, maybe a designer or stylist’s name, and I’ll try to search for that person and not find anything else other than that one line. And I’m thinking to myself: There’s a whole history as it relates to fashion and design connected to this person, and that’s been lost in a sense. While they were living, their work wasn’t documented enough, and there hasn’t been anyone digging deep to research that information since.
One of my favorite episodes to date was the one with Ceci, the costume designer for Living Single, A Different World, and Sister, Sister. It was relatable to people who may not be interested in fashion history but love and relate to these shows and are really excited to learn where the idea of Whitley’s costumes came from. It was a complete fangirl moment for me in that. I also loved the episode I did with Cinque Brathwaite, the son of one of the original Grandassa models. He discussed the movement that his parents created, as well as the Grandassa Models and their contribution to Black fashion.
I don’t consider myself a fashion historian, just because the idea behind that word is that you went to school and got a degree or you’re working in museum studies or something like that. You can just call me an enthusiast.
Go ahead and Google: Jay Jaxon. Up until recently, he was known as a Black designer without much additional information connected to him. A woman by the name of Rachel Fenderson made him the subject of her master’s thesis and learned that there are things he’s done that weren’t even credited to him—which made for the gap in the history. If she hadn’t put that together, his work would have been lost. His work spanned decades.