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Dorthea Church was born on this date in 1922. She was a Black fashion model and educator.
Born Dorothea Towles in Texarkana, TX, she was the seventh of eight children in a farming family. She attended Wiley College in Marshall, TX, where she majored in biology. After her mother's death, a wealthy uncle invited her to move into his house in Los Angeles. She transferred to the University of Southern California, where she received a master's degree in education.
Church initially considered an acting career, but was discouraged by the lack of roles for Black actors. She enrolled in the Dorothy Farrier Charm and Modeling School in Los Angeles. She found jobs in fashion shows and magazines that catered to Black audiences. She also married a dentist, a much older man. In 1949, while on vacation in Paris, Church was hired on the spot by Christian Dior. She liked Paris so much that she informed her husband she was staying.
Church, the first successful Black model in Paris, discovered personal liberation on the runways of Christian Dior and Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1950s. She was in an industry that had been especially resistant to using any but white models to represent beauty on magazine covers and in advertisements. Church, who was revered in France, said of the French: "If you're beautiful, they don't care what colour you are. I got invited out all the time. I was the only black model in Europe and I just thought I was an international person."
Her growing fame did not eliminate prejudice by some designers. At Schiaparelli, she once overheard someone describe her as Tahitian. Pierre Balmain would not allow her to borrow dresses for a photograph for Ebony magazine, fearing that would offend his white clientele. She took the clothes on the pretext that she would wear them to a party, and the magazine photographed them. This deception endeared her to young Black women with dreams of careers in fashion.
She used her model's discount to buy samples from the designers, piece by piece, until she had assembled enough to fill several wardrobes with couture gowns rarely seen in America. In 1954, she returned to America by ship because she had so many luggages pieces, and began a tour of HBCU's with her collection. She staged fashion shows and fund-raisers for more than 200 branches of Alpha Kappa Alpha. Church said “I feel that my going all over America with my show had a great influence on American black women dressing differently and feeling good about them-selves." "They could say, 'If she can do it, I can do it, too.'"
She later signed with the Grace del Marco modeling agency in New York, and worked there for several years. She met Thomas Church, a prominent immigration lawyer, shortly after arriving in New York, and they were married in 1963. He died in 2000.
Dorthea Church died on July 7, 2006 at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. Her death was attributed to heart and kidney disease. She is survived by their son, Thomas.
San Diego Union-Tribune,
P.O. Box 120191,
San Diego, CA 92112-0191