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Why Did We Forget Donyale Luna? By: Kene Nzelu

Hellooooooo FashionX! My name is Kene, and I’m a senior majoring in History. I’m a blog writer for FashionX, and I’m excited to continue blogging this year!

I’m writing an honors thesis in which I’m studying how Black women’s hair changed aHer the Black Power Movement and how these changes reflected the black community’s views on its racial identity after the movement. While doing my research, I learned about Donyale Luna, who is oHen regarded as the first Black supermodel. As someone who has always loved fashion, I was shocked that I had never heard of her. Why weren’t more people talking about this icon?

Thus, I was ecstatic when I found a trailer on YouTube for “Donyale Luna: Supermodel”, a documentary about the model’s life. You can watch the documentary on HBO Max.


We are finally talking about Donyale Luna.

Donyale Luna was born Peggy Ann Freeman in 1945 in Detroit, Michigan and gave herself the name Donyale Luna when she was a teenager. In 1963, she was discovered by fashion photographer David McCabe and moved to New York a year later at age 19 to pursue a career as a model, leaving her difficult childhood behind. Three months later, she was on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, but the magazine did not portray Luna as her true self. Instead, it portrayed her as a drawing with peachy light skin. Unfortunately, this was one of many instances of Luna being disrespected because of her skin color. Luna was contracted to work with fashion photographer Richard Avedon, and he featured her in Harper’s Bazaar. However, the magazine received backlash for featuring Luna because she was a Black woman. Harper’s Bazaar lost subscribers and adverEsers because of this. Avedon was told to stop photographing her because of the backlash, but he conEnued. He tried to get her in the American version of Vogue magazine, but then editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland refused, saying Luna was “nobody’s idea of what anybody wants to look like”. Avedon pushed back against this by saying Luna was extraordinary and Vreeland replied, “So was King Kong”.

I know. This is HORRIFIC.


As a result of the racism Luna faced in the U.S., she moved to Europe where there was less discrimination. Luna talked about being able to live more freely in Europe, saying “I wouldn’t have to be bothered with political situations when I woke up in the morning; I could live and be treated as I felt, without having to worry about the police coming along.” Not only did Luna feel freer, but her modeling career was also more successful in Europe. In 1966, Luna became the first model of color to be on any cover of Vogue. She was on the cover of British Vogue and had been photographed by David Bailey. People who worked with Luna admired her essence. They thought of her as not being of this world. They thought of her as a fairy. As a goddess. In a May 2019 article for British Vogue, Dream Cazzaniga, who is Luna’s daughter, appreciated the way then editor of British Vogue Beatrix Miller described her. Miller said of Luna, “She happens to be a marvellous shape – angular and immensely tall and strange. She has a kind of bite and personality.”


Cazzaniga is trying to get people to separate reality from the myths surrounding her mother. Though many people who met Luna thought she was like an alien, she was human. A human who felt emotion just like all of us. A human who struggled just like all of us. There is a practice of some people viewing Black people as exotic, and when they view them in this way, they might view them as less human. They might not pay attention to their struggles. This can be seen in Luna’s life. In the final days of her life, she experienced intense loneliness and depression. In 1979, Luna died of heart failure due to drug related complications. I can’t help but wonder if because some people viewed her as a celestial being who was out of this world, they didn’t think that she could struggle and need help just like anyone else. Maybe they just didn’t think about the possibility of her struggling.

I’m so glad that Donyale Luna is finally being remembered, but why was she forgotten in the first place? She was so talented and everyone who met her could tell that she had a unique presence, yet she wasn’t being celebrated before now. The fashion world (and other career industries) needs to do a better job of celebrating its members of color.


I’ll end with the words of Dream Cazzaniga, who reflected on her mother’s life in an article for British Vogue aHer reading her mother’s diaries:

“Most of all, though, I will be hoping that the world is finally ready to celebrate a young African- American girl from Detroit who didn’t let others define her. In the end, these pages contain many of the real facts about her extraordinary life – and this is how she deserves to be remembered. At last.”


References

  • Cazzaniga, Dream. “Donyale Luna Changed the Face of Fashion in the ‘60s. Now the Revolutionary Black Model is Getting Her Due”, British Vogue. September 18, 2023.

  • Dupuy, Beatrice. “‘Donyale Luna: Supermodel’ shines a light on the first Black model to grace cover of Vogue”, The Associated Press. September 20, 2023.


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