Black Beauty Moments from Modern History that are Simply Iconic

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

There are a million moments in Black history that have influenced our culture. If we're talking about Black beauty moments, well, there might just be a million and one. From West Africa in 3500 BC to Hollywood today, the aesthetic of Black women and femmes has been a centuries-long masterclass in innovation and evolution, and the entire world has been studying.

Despite the cacophony of Internet culture critics calling out many of our faves for appropriation, we collectively continue to reference the hair, makeup, and style trends originally worn by Black women and femmes throughout civilization. To be clear, that’s because there is nothing intrinsically wrong with reimagining iconic looks from the past. If everything old becomes new again, it is only natural that hairstyles, lip colors, and everything in between will eventually make their way from the history books back onto our vanities.

But as we look at today's geometrically-shaped Afros or celebrate another inclusive foundation shade range, it's important to remember all those who brought us to this point. So, as we lean into nostalgia, making it the guiding light for our beauty choices, this Black History Month we’ve decided to celebrate a few of the major sources of all that light.

1968: Diahann Carroll stars in Julia on NBC

In an era ripe with racial unrest, the world simply could not fathom a Black woman securing a network television contract as the lead in her own sitcom. Then, the universe gave us Diahann Carroll.

Starring as a widowed mother and nurse, Carroll appeared on television screens for 86 episodes in Julia. It was the first time viewers witnessed a beautiful and poised Black female character in mainstream television.

Her grace was palpable through the screen and her looks were instantly iconic. Whether she wore a pixie cut with baby bangs or an impeccably-situated bouffant, she became #hairgoals.

Her character, Julia, would later be immortalized as a Barbie Doll. By the next century, celebrities of all races would continue to carry on and recreate her iconic looks (knowingly or not).

1973: Diana Ross reigns as the queen of changing hairstyles

Diana Ross has got to be one of the first “hair chameleons” of our time.

Before Kylie Jenner or Doja Cat began sporting technicolor wigs, Ross served up a visual feast of hair options for women to consider. I mean, haven’t we all seriously considered how fun it would be to rock the bright-blue Afro from Mahogany?

"Diana Ross expressed Afrocentric beauty throughout the ‘70s and has embraced full-bodied texture throughout the '80s to the present day. Seeing her in this light has inspired many [women with textured hair] to celebrate their natural beauty," hairstylist Araxi Lindsey, who styles Tracee Ellis Ross, tells ishonest.

“Working on such a woman like Tracee Ellis Ross makes me feel like I'm reliving my childhood, creating iconic Afro-textured hairstyles today's generation will find inspiring.”

1973: Black cosmetics brand Fashion Fair Launches

Several years after America adapted to seeing Black women in leading roles on film and television (and as the phrase “Black is beautiful” became popularized through the Civil Rights movement) Ebony and Jet magazines founder John H. Johnson decided it was time to launch a line of makeup products aligned to the cultural shift. He wanted to be the first to offer cosmetics products to Black women who’d been underserved in the beauty market.

The idea came on the heels of the success of the Johnson Afro Sheen product line, which dominated the market of products created specifically for Afro- textured hair. (The line relaunched in 2020 with nine new products.)

In 1973, Fashion Fair was born and would go on to become the most successful Black cosmetics product line in the world, inspiring a movement of future makeup lines and entrepreneurs (hi, Rihanna!) that celebrate darker skin tones.

1973: Cecily Tyson covers Jet magazine

Back when her star was rising, Tyson was known for her role as Rebecca Morgan in Sounder. It was one of the few films of the time that stood out for its serious subject matter, following the lives of Black sharecroppers during a time when Blaxploitation films dominated.

In her breakout role, Tyson was seen with a clean face and her hair wrapped up in a scarf. So when she appeared on the cover of Jet magazine a year later, glorious in African-inspired cornrows (similar to the look you see here) and a face full of makeup, America embraced her a little tighter.

While Tyson continues her career as an iconic figure in Black film, a similar style — now called Fulani braids — lives on as well.

1974: Beverly Johnson lands the cover of American Vogue

Fresh-faced with a blown-out coif grazing the shoulders of her blue sweater, Beverly Johnson made history as the first Black cover girl for Vogue magazine.

After almost a century of shipping covers with white models, the editors selected a brown-skinned beauty for the cover of its “American look” issue. We can’t quite say what’s more iconic: Beverly simply being on the cover or Vogue finally positioning an African-American woman as the aspirational “American look” for the first time in its editorial history. Why not both?

Everything — her pencil-thin brows, her feathery, blown-out bob, her subtle rouge lips — would become trends to watch in the following decade, as other iconic Black characters (ahem... Claire Huxtable) mirrored that image.

1975: Transgender model Tracey “Africa” Norman is featured on the boxes of Clairol’s Born Beautiful products

The first prominent African-American transgender model appeared on the box of a household name-brand hair dye and in the pages of Essence before being outed by an industry colleague. Despite being considered “the next Beverly Johnson,” her modeling career slowed to a halt in the years following the outing.

That is until Clairol welcomed her back, 40 years after her initial contract, to be the face of another Clairol product, this time in an open celebration of her identity and her truth.

"Clairol is very proud of the years Tracey Africa spent on the 'Born Beautiful' box in the 1970s, so it was a natural fit to bring her back for the 'Color As Real As You Are' campaign in 2016," Kevin Shapiro, vice president of marketing at Clairol tells ishonest.

"Tracey’s story came to light when we were planning our 'Color As Real As You Are' campaign and we decided she would be a natural fit for [it]. The joy she experienced from expressing herself freely shined through in the campaign and she embodied what [it] was all about."

Norman continues to pave the way for other young transgender women of color in the modeling and entertainment industry.

1977: Grace Jones blows up

When the Jamaican-born Grace Jones arrived in Syracuse, New York in the early ‘60s, the world had yet to imagine all the ways she would turn it upside down. By the end of the ‘70s, her androgynous look had transformed her into an international supermodel collaborating with A-list photographers and designers.

She eamed up with the legendary artist, Richard Bernstein, to shoot the cover for her debut album Portfolio, ushering in a lifelong commitment to bold, overstated makeup and an angled pixie we'll never forget. Frankly, we haven't been the same since.

It’s a look we’ve seen repeated today on runways worldwide and on Black actresses like Leslie Jones and Lupita Nyong’o.

1982: The advent of the Jheri Curl

The Jheri Curl is one of the looks that defined the 1980s.

The style, created by Jheri Redding, was a chemical perm Black men and women alike clamored over throughout the decade. Despite its high-level maintenance (those who wore it had to commit to a regular routine consisting of curl- activator spray and plastic shower caps), celebrities like Michael Jackson, Ice Cube, Eazy E, Eriq La Salle in Coming to America (shown above), and more solidified this style as the new wave.

For all the shade that the Jheri curl later received — and it was definitely a look — style icons like Rihanna would be spotted rocking the more modern (and less greasy) version in the years to come.

1993: Janet Jackson appears in Poetic Justice with braided extensions

Braids have never, technically, been anything new. According to research from Old Dominion University, the plaited look dates back more than 5,000 years in African culture to around 3500 B.C. Then, women wore braids in intricate patterns to signify their tribe, as well as other defining characteristics, like their age, wealth, marital status, and more.

Whether they were cornrows, or full-on sculpted crowns, braids remained a traditional style and bonding experience that Black women shared worldwide. So when Janet Jackson (and other influential figures like Patra and Brandy) appeared on our big and small screens with box braids of varying sizes and lengths, the community collectively embraced and iterated on the iconic look — adding colors, scarves, hats, and headbands to top off the trending style.

1994: RuPaul launches MAC’s Viva Glam campaign to raise funds for HIV/AIDS research

Back in 1994, MAC made the bold decision to lean into its customer base (the brand was known for its support of the LGBTQ+ community) and launch the MAC AIDS Fund to support those living with HIV and AIDS. All of the proceeds from their Viva Glam lipstick would fund the initiative.

Naturally, the brand kicked off its campaign with none other than the queen of all queens, RuPaul.

In the unforgettable campaign artwork, RuPaul contorts into various letters, spelling out the product name "Viva Glam." He's clad in a fire-engine red corset and panty set, with matching thigh-high boots, a platinum blonde waist-length wig, and of course, that bold MAC lip. The image immediately became a coveted look for reinvention; so much so that on the 25th anniversary of the campaign, the brand tapped Winnie Harlow to reimagine the iconic shoot.

2014: Lupita Nyong'o becomes the face of Lancôme

By the mid-2010s, the natural hair movement was in full swing and more Black models, actresses, and entertainers started embracing their natural texture.

Still, there were leaps and bounds to be made when it came to colorism. That’s what made Lancôme’s announcement of Lupita Nyong’o as its first Black "ambassadress" a moment that shook the industry.

For the first time, a dark-skinned, kinky-haired Black woman would represent the skin-care and makeup line traditionally known for its porcelain models. Justifiably, Black women collectively celebrated and flocked to discover the magic of Lancôme’s collection of foundations.

2015: Viola Davis reveals her natural hair in How To Get Away With Murder

What once felt like a crime for many Black women with kinkier hair — unveiling your natural texture in public — officially became an act of power when Viola Davis reminded us of the diversity of authentic Black beauty.

In an unforgettable scene from the ABC hit drama series, How To Get Away With Murder, Davis’s character Annalise Keating settles in at her vanity, and slowly and deliberately slips off her straight wig to reveal short 4C hair positioned against her deep mahogany skin, full nose, and lips.

"You’re always taught as a person of color to not like your hair. The kinkier it is, the so-called nappier it is, the uglier it is," Davis told Variety in 2018. "We’re into a zeitgeist where people are fighting for their space to be seen. People have to know that there are different types of women of color."

Davis continued to wear her natural, unmanipulated coils in films like Widow, proving to the world that Black beauty has range.

2019: Black beauty queens take several crowns

The beauty industry (with the help of A-list influencers and regular folks empowered by social media) increased representation exponentially in the last decade to normalize and celebrate dark skin tones and kinky hair.

That’s why we were more thrilled than shocked to see, not one or two, but five Black women from around the globe win the top title in national and international beauty pageants. Before 1990, the Miss USA Pageant, in particular, had few black women representing. Vanessa Williams famously won (and then was stripped of her crown) in 1984. Carole Gist won in 1990 and by the 2000s, according to the New York Times, the number of contestants of color (which we're taking to include nonblack women of color) grew by double-digits every year.

In 2019, Nia Franklin was named Miss America, followed by Kaliegh Garris becoming Miss Teen USA, Cheslie Kryst becoming Miss USA, Zozibini Tunzi becoming Miss Universe, and Toni-Ann Singh taking the final crown as Miss World.

Could any culminating moment in beauty history be more poetic? We think not.

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