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Dorothea Church, 83; First Black Model to Work for French Designers

Times Staff Writer

Dorothea Towles Church, the first professional African American model to walk the fashion runways of French couture designers in Paris, died July 7. She was 83.

Church died at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. The cause was complications from heart and kidney disease, said Michael Henry Adams, a friend.

She had been a resident of New York City for many years.

In the late 1940s, after some early modeling experience in Los Angeles, Church took a trip to Paris with her sister, Lois, a music student who planned to study there.

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She called on several French designers and was hired at Christian Dior to fill in for a house model who was on vacation. From Dior, Church went to work for Elsa Schiaparelli and, later, Pierre Balmain.

Doors opened easily, and she decided to stay in Paris. “For once I was not considered black, African American or Negro. I was just an American,” Church recalled in a 2004 interview with Women’s Wear Daily. The French fashion establishment “treated you like a queen,” she said.

The fashion industry in the United States was not the same. While Church was working for Balmain in the early 1950s, editors of Ebony, the African American magazine, asked about photographing some of his latest styles. Balmain’s publicist turned them down, concerned that it would hurt sales among Balmain’s white customers in the United States, Church said later.

“They didn’t think that African American women would buy the clothes, that they could buy the clothes,” Church said of Balmain’s business staff in an interview for the 1998 book “Black and Beautiful” by Barbara Summers.

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“That’s where my education and my experience came in,” Church said. “I knew about black history and black society.”

She was raised among black middle-class, professional people in Texarkana, Texas. It took years for fashion promoters to recognize the potential market, she later said.

Church returned to the United States in the early 1950s, carrying trunks filled with couture dresses she had bought at Paris designers’ sales.

She settled in New York City, expecting to work for top American fashion designers, but there were few jobs for black models.

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She organized a fashion show of her couture collection and toured U.S. cities with the help of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a college sorority established by black women. For each show, she hired local professional models and college students after she taught them some basic skills.

A dress, hat and purse from Church’s collection are included in an exhibit, “Black Style Now,” co-curated by Adams, that will open Sept. 9 at the Museum of the City of New York.

“I feel I had a great influence on American black women dressing differently and feeling good about themselves,” Church said of her touring couture show, in “Black and Beautiful.”

Gradually through the 1960s, New York designers and top fashion magazine editors began to hire models of color. French-born fashion designer Pauline Trigere set an example when she hired a black woman as her house model in 1961, Summers recounts in her book.

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Far more opportunities for African American models opened up in the early 1970s when Beverly Johnson became a black supermodel.

Church was born July 26, 1922, one of eight children. Her father was a building contractor. Her mother finished two years of college.

She graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and then moved to Los Angeles to live with an uncle. She enrolled at the Dorothy Farrier Charm and Modeling School, where she was the only African American student.

She married a Los Angeles dentist “old enough to be my father,” she said in “Black and Beautiful.” The marriage ended soon after she sold her return ticket to the United States during her fateful trip to Paris.

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After returning from Paris to live in New York City, she met Tom Church in 1955. The couple married and had one son. Church’s husband died in 2000. She is survived by her son, Thomas.


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