Nichelle Gainer of the blog Vintage Black Glamour discovered that one of her aunts had been a model, and another had been an opera singer. As she researched their lives, she uncovered a world of black culture that was hidden from the mainstream media before the Civil Rights era. As she learned of more black actors, musicians, artists, dancers, writers, fashion designers, and other celebrities, she posted their pictures and stories on her website.
Appearing in magazines is image control, too, because after a while, if people don’t see black celebrities or models in old magazines, they assume black women didn’t do Hollywood glamour. Now, we have these beautiful coffee-table books with Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and the old Hollywood goddesses like Jean Harlow. But you can say, “Look, I have a lot of these old Hollywood books, and I don’t see any black people in there, therefore, they must not have been there.” They’ll have Mexican actress Dolores del Rio. Then, they might slide in a picture, like I saw in a book about Kennedy, where they put in one picture of Dorothy Dandridge. One picture! So that’s why people are fascinated. They say, “Where did you find these pictures?” The pictures I have are right in front of your face. You just weren’t looking for them because it never occurred to you.
A lot of people think of vintage black pictures as either civil-rights photos or black ladies at church, or maybe sharecroppers picking in the cotton fields and sweating from the hard work. That’s fine. Those are our pictures. But that shouldn’t be the only image of us. It’s nice to see a black woman who is not sweating in the field, but glistening from all this bling, like Josephine Baker, dripping in diamonds. Sometimes you want to see that. Why not? It’s easy to take glamour for granted. You can be a white woman, and you can care less about Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, and that’s fine. But you know what? Black women haven’t had the same option.