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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.