Oxford AASC: Church, Dorothea Towles

Church, Dorothea Towles

By: Patricia Hunt-Hurst
 African American National Biography What is This?

Related Content

Church, Dorothea Towles

(26 July 1922–7 July 2006),

one of the pioneers of black women in fashion modeling, was born in Texarkana, Texas; she was the seventh of eight children. Her mother was a school teacher and her father a carpenter and farmer. Dorothy studied biology at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, where she completed her degree in 1945. She planned to study medicine, but when her mother died she moved to Los Angeles to live with family. While there she earned a master's degree in education at the University of Southern California, married, and started her modeling career.

The fashion industry in the late twentieth century included the major fashion centers of New York and Paris. New York was known for its American ready-to-wear and Paris for its couture or made-to-order dresses of original designs. Fashion models were vital to the display of the designs in both facets of the industry, through fashion shows, magazine layouts, advertisements, and catalogs.

While living in California, Church enrolled in the Dorothy Farrier Charm and Modeling School as its first black student. Los Angeles was a burgeoning fashion center. Manufacturers held fashion shows to present their newest lines to buyers, fashion editors, and fashion reporters. Retailers organized fashion shows around lavish lunches to show their latest purchases to their customers. Church was one of the only black models at that time and this would continue as she pursued modeling in the major fashion center of the world, Paris.

In 1949 Church left Los Angeles for an extended vacation in Paris with her husband, Dr. Nathaniel Alfonso Fearonce, a dentist. While in Paris she visited French couture houses applying for modeling jobs. Her first modeling job was with the famous design house of Christian Dior. At this time couture designers held shows of their work in their salons with chairs positioned around the room for clients, fashion editors, and others who came to view the newest creations. The models walked through the rooms, stopping and giving the audience a closer look at the style of a jacket, the pattern of the fabric, or the fullness of a skirt. Church's two-month vacation turned into a five-year journey that resulted in the end of her marriage, but the beginning of a promising modeling career with Dior and other leading French couture designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Pierre Balmain. Her success in Paris preceded her return to the United States. In April 1953 Jet, a weekly African American publication, placed her on its cover and celebrated her success and acceptance in Paris.

She returned to the United States in 1954 and settled in New York City to continue her modeling career. Initially having trouble finding work with American designers, she organized a traveling fashion show of the couture gowns she purchased while modeling in Paris. According to Eric Wilson (2006, p. 29), “she staged fashion shows and fund-raisers for more than 200 branches of Alpha Kappa Alphas, a college sorority established by black women.” In addition to raising money for the sorority’s scholarship funds, Church hired local models for the shows. She later signed with the Grace Del Marco modeling agency, modeling in both New York and Europe in fashion shows, magazines, and advertisements. In 1959 she became the first black model for Maybelline cosmetics. She continued to share her industry expertise with young women and in 1966 she taught a course in charm and good grooming for the Harlem Institute of Fashion. This type of course was often the first stepping-stone to a career in modeling.

Dorothea met Thomas A. Church, a New York immigration lawyer in the late 1950s, and married him in 1963. The couple had one child, Thomas A. Church, Jr. Once she stopped modeling, and for many years after, her contributions were highlighted in fashion shows on the history of black men and women in fashion and in the invitations she received to attend events that celebrated African Americans working in the fashion industry.

Church died in New York City in July 2006 due to heart and kidney disease, leaving behind a legacy of contributions to black men and women in the fashion industry. In 2007 she was honored in a statement by U.S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel in the New York House of Representatives for her achievements.

Further Reading

  • Farrell-Beck, Jane, and Jean Parsons. 20th Century Dress in the United States (2007).
  • Hunt-Hurst, Patricia. Fashion Industry, Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, vol. 1, pp. 425–430 (2005).
  • Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers (1985).
  • Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style (1989).
  • Park, David. Church, Dorothea Towles, Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fch79.
  • Rangel, Charles B.. Honoring The Life Of Dorothea Towles Church, Fashion Model And Designer, Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the U.S. Congress. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/2007/7/24/ extensions-of-remarks-section/article/E1610-3, 24 July 2007.
  • Obituary: Wilson, Eric. “Dorothea T. Church Dies: Pioneering Model was 83.” The New York Times, 23 July 2006, p. 29.
Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center
Highlight any word or phrase and click the button to begin a new search.