Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Descriptions Of The Grandassa Models & Their Fashions

Edited by Azizi Powell

The Grandassa models were a group of African American female models whose afro-centric fashion shows were the first to promote the slogan "Black is Beautiful". Based in New York City, the Grandassa models' fashion shows were held in various cities in the United States from 1962 to 1979.

This is Part 3 of a 3 part series on the Grandassa models. This series is largely composed of excerpts from online articles. I have compiled these excerpts in this post as a means of increasing access to the historical, sociological, and educational information provided in those articles. I have credited all the authors or publications of these hyperlinked excerpts and thank those authors/publications for providing such information about the Grandassa models.

Click for Part 1 of this series.

Click for Part 2 of this series.

This post focuses on descriptions of the Grandassa models and the fashions they wore.

DESCRIPTIONS OF GRANDASSA MODELS - Skin Color & Natural Hair (Afros)
The most commonly found descriptor of Grandassa models is that they were dark complexioned African American females. African American reporter Earl Caldwell wrote
"They were very dark complected. To see the Grandassa models for the first time was stunning... They were so dark their faces had a bluish shimmer. "Blue black," people said. You saw them and your mouth just fell open."

From Chapter 16: The Grandassa Models
[Hereafter given in this post as "Caldwell: Grandasa Models"]
Here are links to two photographs of the Grandassa models: [This is a colorised version of the photograph found elsewhere online]
and The Grandassa models: Ebony Aug 1970

Also, here's a link to a gallery of relatively contemporary photographs of former Grandassa models: Gallery Talk: The Grandassa
These photographs show that, contrary to the opinion of Earl Caldwell (that are quoted above), the Grandassa models were only dark skinned in comparison to the prevailing norm then (and to a great extent still now) for White female runway models. Back then, and to a somewhat lesser extent now, if African American females were used as runway models, those models' complexion was light brown skin, and their hair was chemically straightened or they wore straight hair wigs.

Which brings up the second most commonly described characteristic of Grandassa models- their afro hair. In his chapter about the Grandassa models, Earl Caldwell wrote "And, in place of the popular processed hairdo involving hot combs, which literally burned hair straight, they wore "naturals," later called Afros, which meant hair groomed and worn naturally." Source: "Caldwell: Grandasa Models"

Every Grandassa models consistently wore their hair naturally (without chemical process or hot comb treatment). The afros that the Grandassa models wore were bush shaped-like the afro that Black activist's Angela Davis had. However, the models' afros were less wide that that of Angela Davis.

Afros were new to African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. To wear your hair in such a style was daring and liable to provocate teasing, taunting and accusations of militacy from African Americans as well as from White people. Furthermore, in those days afros weren't styled or "texturized". It should also be emphasized that no Grandassa model wore her hair in the natural style known as "dreadlocks". My recollection is that dreadlocks were seldom worn by afrocentric African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. Also, during their fashion shows, the Grandassa models didn't wear their hair in any other temporary natural styles such as braids or cornrolls. In those days, cornrolls were considered a fashion for young girls. And while women with afros usually braided their hair at night, it was almost unthinkable that we would venture outdoors with our hair in those braids.*

*Somewhat of an aside, I've consistently worn my hair in an afro since 1967, although the length of my afro has become considerable shorter in the passing decades.

In the summer of 1967, I participated in a Grandassa model fashion show during a street fair in New York City, along with a few other members of The Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN). My recollection is that this was an impromptu invitation because some of the models weren't available for that event. I wish I had thought to take photographs of that event, but even if I had, I probably would have lost them given how long ago that was.

for a historical view of community opinions regarding the Grandassa models' afro hairstyles.

In the 1960s and 1970s, most African Americans had very little knowledge about or access to traditional African clothing. By "African clothing", I'm referring to and "West African" clothing, in particular clothing from Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and Mali and I think that's what most African Americans in those decades meant when we referred to "African clothing".

Thanks to the internet, and in particular thanks to YouTube, it's very easy now for African Americans to view examples of traditional and contemporary African clothing. However, back then, afro-centric women kind of made it up as we went, and considered our clothing to be "African inspired" or "African styled" and not necessarily how Africans in Africa dressed. "African inspired" or "African styled are how the fashions worn by the Grandassa models are usually described.

I wrote "we" in the above statements because from 1969-1969 I was a member of The Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN), the Newark, New Jersey based afro-centric organization which was eventually led by poet, playwright, and activist, Amiri Baraka. Female members of CFUN always wore what we considered to be "African styled". For everyday clothing in warmer weather, women members of that organization wore a t-shirt, or sweatshirt and a wrap around skirt made from a piece of material (not necessarily African fabric. That material was tied with the two ends and never pinned. Alternatively, we would wrap the material around our body and tie it in the back of our neck as a dress. In colder weather, women would wear a long sleeve sweater or turtleneck sweater under the wrap around dress, or as the top of our wrap around skirt. Incidently, we called the tops "bubas" and the skirts "lapas", and thought that these were African terms for those garments. But I've no idea if those are "real" African words, and if so which language they are from.

For dressier occassions, the women in that afro-centric organization usually wore two piece skirt and tops that were ankle length & made from real or "fake" African material, or ankle length dresses that were made from the same types of material. On dressier occasions we also wore head wraps (geles) which might be tied West African fashion, with one or more end pieces hanging out. If we were fortunate, we had one or two real outfits from Africa, usually purchased from New York City, or Washington, D.C. But almost always we made our own African style clothing or had it made by an African American seamstress. Often the fabric that was used for those "African style" garments were "African print", that is fabric with a certain kinds of geometric designs. The photographs which are linked above show this fabric and the female clothing styles that I described with the significant difference that the dresses or skirts weren't ankle length but were all slightly above the knees. This was the most common dress & skirt length in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

HEADWRAPS (GELES) [Revised on 1/24/2015]
A significant difference between Grandassa models and women who were members of CFUN is that, unlike CFUN women, Grandassa models don't appear to wear any headwraps. I don't recall those models wearing headwraps and they aren't wearing any headwraps (or anything else to cover up their afros) in photographs of those models that I've found.

Click for a pancocojams post that provides some historical information of African Americans wearing head scarves and showcases some how-to videos about tying head wraps.

I was fortunate to have many of my African outfits designed and sewn by Bisi Ogunleye, a Yoruba woman who was in the United States with her husband who was a student at the University of Pittsburgh. The fabrics that Bisi used for my winter "buba" (top) and "lapa" (skirt, in this case sewn with a drawstring instead of wrap around) were heavier than the fabric used for warmer weather garments.

I regret that I've not been able to find a video of the Grandassa models or any other afro-centric model group in the late 1960s or 1970s. However, here are two videos of an African fashion shows in the United States:

FashionAFRICANA at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh

Uploaded by UtopiaFA on Jul 12, 2011

In 2004, FashionAFRICANA - a global celebration of design, dance and music - paid tribute to the Lost Boys of Sudan at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.


Uploaded by Missafricausa on Jan 28, 2010
Miss Africa USA Fashion Parade featuring designs by Estella Couture.

Artist: Dr. Victor & The Rasta Rebels - "Tsoang Tsoang Tsoang"
In my opinion, Africa USA pageant which began in Georgia in 2005 may be the most well known inheritor of the legacy of the Grandassa models. It's therefore somewhat ironic that African Americans are ineligible to enter that pageant. As per the About Us page on Africa USA's website: "The pageant is open to delegates from all 53 countries that make up the continent of Africa, the motherland...Pageant delegates are simply ordinary women of African descent, who face the challenges of growing up in two different cultures, the American and the African".
For more information on Africa USA, click

In my opinion, a post about African American fashion shows in the 1960s and 1970s wouldn't be complete without mention of the Ebony Fashion Fair. Those touring Black fashion shows were sponsored from 1958-2010 by Johnson Publications, home of the long running Black oriented magazines Ebony and Jet. Unfortunately, budgetary concerns were the primary reason for the demise of the Ebony Fashion Fair.

Unlike the Grandassa fashion shows, Ebony Fashion Fair was known for its extravagent, glamorous, daring women's fashions, mostly from famous European designers. Whereas initially most of the Ebony Fashion Fair models were light brown skinned, in later years, its models were varying complexions. Yet, it's interesting that according to an article in Ebony magazine, one of the most popular Ebony Fashion Fair model was considered to be "dark skinned" (of course, given my previous comments, it's uncertain what that particular descriptor really means).

"Terri Springer was the undisputed "star" of Ebony Fashion Fair from 1959-1964. Today many people still recall the grace and beauty of the regal, mocha-colored model. The daring and beautiful Springer hit the runway like she owned it with explosive drama and elegance. And during a day and age when women with dark skin weren't eager to wear bright colors, Springer wore bright colors as if they were made exclusively for her."
Here's another comment about Terri Springer that I happened upon (Coincidentally, the writer is from a city that is very near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I live).
"Ebony - Dec 1964

Letter to editor: ...Why not articles on your Negro models? Terri Springer is a favorite of mine because she is a dark girl who has made it in a field formerly reserved only for whites. She is an inspiration to our dark girls who have been made to feel that their color is a disadvantage. (There are still some color conscious Negroes around even though sometimes they are reluctant to admit it. In addition to her, there are other models that your readers don’t even know exist because they are now modeling for top fashion houses etc. How about it?"
-Sally Carter, New Kensington, Pa"

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