NEW YORK — Dorothea Towles Church, who paved the way for women of color to model at major European fashion houses, died Friday at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital here. She was 83.
She was battling heart disease and kidney failure, said Norma Jean Darden, a former model and friend.
Church is believed to be the first woman of color to sashay in the ateliers of designers such as Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, Elsa Schiaparelli and Robert Piguet.
Soon after graduating from Wiley College in Marshall, Tex., as a biology major, Church's mother died and she accepted a wealthy uncle's offer for a West Coast visit, borrowed train ticket money from another relative and headed to Los Angeles. She shelved plans for a medical career and set her sights on modeling, becoming the first black student at the Dorothy Farrier Charm and Modeling School.
Church took to her new life in Los Angeles. In the Forties, she frequented the Sunset Strip, even though her African-American friends would not. "I went with an open mind and expected to be accepted," she told WWD during a 2004 interview.
The seventh of eight children raised in Texarkana, Tex., Church in 1949 accompanied her sister, Lois Towles, a budding concert pianist, to Paris. "When I got there, I said, 'There are too many opportunities. I'm not going back,'" she recalled. That was unwelcome news to the considerably older husband she left behind in Texas and eventually divorced. She later married Thomas Church, who died six years ago.
Her somewhat light skin and figure — short-waisted like French girls and long-legged like Americans — interested Paris designers who were trying to appeal to a more international crowd. Determined to start at the top, Church marched herself into 30 Avenue Montaigne to speak with Christian Dior, who hired her on the spot to step in for a vacationing model. He even persuaded her to dye her hair platinum at one point.
"Paris was the complete opposite of Texas," she said. "They treated you like a queen. The French in that period looked at you internally with deep significance. For once I was not considered black, African-American or a Negro. I was just an American."When Dior's vacationing model returned, Church was sent to Elsa Schiaparelli as a house model, standing for hours on end wrapped in muslin while gowns were sewn stitch by stitch.
Church told WWD that Schiaparelli advised her models to treat the well-heeled with disregard because "they didn't want to be fawned over."
Back in the U.S. in the early Fifties, Church signed with Ophelia DeVore at the Grace del Marco modeling agency, but racist attitudes affected her career. She devoted more time to staging fashion shows and trunk shows on the East and West Coasts for branches of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and black colleges. She sold couture she had bought with her model's discount.
Darden, who helped break down racial boundaries in modeling in the Seventies, remembered seeing Church for the first time at a fashion show benefit for the NAACP in Montclair, N.J. "Dorothea was the star," Darden recalled. "She was just back from Europe and had this unbelievable wardrobe ... She had such charm."
For her part, Church told WWD: "Eventually, I felt like I was responsible for breaking down barriers, but I had to show African-American girls that they could do it."
She is survived by a son, Thomas Church of San Francisco.
“These collections continue to build on that vision, empowering differently abled adults to express themselves through fashion,” said @tommyhilfiger of his line of adaptive apparel, which launches today. The line consists of 37 men’s and 34 women’s styles based upon the pieces from the spring Tommy Hilfiger sportswear collection. #wwdnews
“Stranger Things” is getting a new cast member for season 2. Meet @sadiesink_, the 15-year-old who will be joining the Netflix series for its new season. You may recognize her from “The Glass Castle” with Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson, but the Texas native’s next role goes in an entirely different direction. She describes her character, Max, as “a rough and tumble skater girl [who] becomes friends with the boys at school.” The second season debuts on October 27. (📷: @jgreenery) #wwdeye
Amid the Harvey Weinstein controversy, there’s another sector that’s being put under the spotlight for sexual abuse: the modeling industry. While rumors about abuse and sexual harassment of female and male models — and the photographers, agents and others who perpetrated it — have circulated within the fashion world for years, model @cameronrussell started posting stories from models on Instagram last week about abusive situations they’ve encountered — from sexual harassment and molestation to attempted rape. Over 75 have weighed in so far. Read more on WWD.com. Link in bio. #wwdnews
To celebrate its 16th anniversary, @dylanscandybar tapped designers and celebrities to create mosaics out of candy. The mosaics will be auctioned off to support the philanthropic cause of each participant’s choice. Pictured here is the mural created by @aliceandolivia's Stacey Bendet. For a first look at some of the other artwork being unveiled tonight, go to WWD.com. #wwdeye
The annual Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic in Pacific Palisades this weekend drew Kate Hudson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Laura Dern and more. See pictures of the star-studded event on WWD.com. (📷: @chelsealaurenla) #wwdeye
In his new book “Hollywood Royale,” Andy Warhol’s Protégé Matthew Rolston celebrates the Eighties revival of Hollywood glamour. Featuring more than 100 portraits taken by Rolston from 1977 to 1993, the book contains photos of icons like Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, and @drewbarrymore, pictured here in 1991. “Hollywood Royale,” out today, will be accompanied by an exhibition opening at Los Angeles’ Fahey/Klein Gallery on March 1. #wwdeye
"Nowadays when life is not so happy with everything going on in the world, I think people come to me for a little bit of whimsy and color and fun." - Designer Rebecca De Ravenel on her cult-favorite jewelry line. (📸 : @vsteves) #wwd40
“Everyone is talking about how the retail industry is struggling, but I think it’s an incredible time because brands who are doing something different and innovative are setting themselves up for the future,” said @adamgoldston, who founded the luxury athletic brand @apl with his brother @ryangoldsten. The Goldston’s are part of WWD’s 40 under 40: a group of industry notables. See the rest of the list on WWD.com. (📷: @vsteves) #wwd40
@eyeswoon blogger Athena Calderone debuted her first-ever cookbook, “Cook Beautiful,” which is heavily centered on the presentation and visual expression of food. Pictured here are her miso glazed carrots from the book. Get the recipe on WWD.com. (📷: @johnny_miller_) #wwdeye