Dorothea Towles Church, pioneering black model, was born on July 26, 1922, in Texarkana, Texas. She was the seventh of eight children born to Thomas Elsworth Towles of Alabama and Anabella Clark of Arkansas. Her father worked as a farmer and self-employed carpenter, and her mother was a school teacher.
Dorothea Towles studied biology at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and graduated in 1945 with the intent of practicing medicine. However, when her mother died, she moved to Los Angeles to live with a wealthy uncle, Dr. H. H. Towles, and attend the University of Southern California, where she earned a master’s degree in education. Captivated by the glamour and glitz of Los Angeles, she changed course again and enrolled in the Dorothy Farrier Charm and Modeling School as the institution’s first black student. She worked in California and modeled for African-American fashion shows and magazines before marrying a dentist that she said was “old enough to be my father.”
In 1949 her husband took her on a two-month vacation to Paris where Lois Towles, her famous concert pianist sister, was on tour with the Fisk University Choir. While there, Dorothea looked for modeling work and was hired on the spot by famous fashion designer Christian Dior to replace a model who was on vacation. She enjoyed modeling in Paris so much she decided not to return to the United States. After trying and failing to change her mind, her husband filed for divorce.
Dorothea Towles modeled in Paris for five years during the 1950s and worked with other famous designers besides Dior, such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Robert Piguet, Jacques Fath, and Pierre Balmain. She said of the French, “If you’re beautiful, they don’t care what color you are.…For once I was not considered black, African American, or Negro,” she said in an interview, “I was just an American.” Her success and acceptance there were widely publicized in black magazines and periodicals in the U.S., including earning her a place on the cover of the African-American weekly Jet in April 1953.
Her modeling successes were historic not only because she was the first black woman accepted into the world’s top fashion houses in Paris, but before her, the industry was largely closed to accepting beauty as being represented by anyone except whites, both in Europe and the U.S. Thus, she was responsible for breaking down some of those barriers. Still, Towles experienced some racial prejudice from designers. For example, Pierre Balmain’s staff refused her request to borrow dresses for a photo shoot with Ebony magazine because they were concerned white clients would be displeased. Furthermore, they said African-American women would not be interested in, nor could they afford to buy, Balmain’s clothes.
During her five years in Paris, Dorothea Towles accumulated an enormous collection of designer couture gowns—with distinctive styles, unknown to Americans—using her model’s discount, estimated to be valued at $50,000. When she returned to the United States in 1954, she had to travel by ship due to her excess of baggage. She settled in New York City and hoped to find work with the top American designers. However, she found that few would hire a black model at first. Consequently, after her return, Dorothea organized a fashion show throughout the United States and exhibited her own couture wardrobe in conjunction with Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority for black women that she was a member of in college. She hired local models and college students from the more than 100 high schools and colleges she traveled to and donated the proceeds to local sororitys’ scholarship funds.
Dorothea Towles eventually signed with the New York modeling agency Grace del Marco and was thought to be the only black model that made her entire income in the profession at that time. During the 1960s and 1970s, while opportunities continuously opened up in the U.S., she regularly returned to Europe to model across the continent. She also opened a charm school for teenage girls.
Dorothea Towles met a leading New York lawyer named Thomas A. Church in the late 1950s. A graduate of Howard and Georgetown universities in Washington, D.C., and the nephew of the famed civil rights advocate Mary Church Terrell, he later became an attorney with the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Division. In December 1963 the couple turned a vacation to Paris into a wedding and honeymoon.
Following the death of her husband Thomas in 2000, she began writing her memoirs with the working title, “I Did It With My Body.” However, it was never finished as Dorothea Towles Church died on July 7, 2006, at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, New York, at the age of eighty-three. The cause of death was complications from heart and kidney disease. The couple was survived by their only child, a son named Thomas. In July 2007 she was honored in the New York House of Representatives by U. S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel.