We talk about the most beautiful black women in Hollywood today all the time, but we figured we need to pay a little homage to the starlets of old Hollywood’s past who wore many of the classic styles that have been revived today first. In a time when black beauty was celebrated even less than it is now in the United States and abroad, there were a handful of black actresses and singers who defied status quo with their beautiful looks, sultry style, and gorgeous voices. While the mainstream is still honoring icons like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Jean Harlow, we wanted to shout out a few of our own and give you some vintage black beauty from old Hollywood to be inspired by.
Nina McKinney was one of the first African-American film stars in the United States and British television and she was the first African-American actress to hold a principal role in a mainstream film in 1929’s Hallelujah. Nina’s looks set the beauty standard for women during her time and she became known as the “Black Garbo” in Europe because she was stunningly gorgeous like the Swedish actress Greta Garbo.
Not much needs to be said about this timeless beauty. Right up until her death, Ms. Lena Horne was a stunningly gorgeous woman with an angelic voice to match. But Lena was more than a pretty face behind the mic at the Cotton Club in signature one-shoulder dresses, she also fought hard for racial equality and civil rights and looked amazing while at it.
The original Halle Berry, also from Cleveland, captured audience’s hearts long before the Monster’s Ball Academy Award winner was even a thought and she became the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her leading role in Carmen Jones. Despite internal struggles, Dorothy Dandridge was flawlessly beautiful on the outside, from rich brown skin to a perfectly maintained coif, and dresses that looked like they were made just for her frame, Ms. Dandridge was truly a style maven.
Pearl Bailey starred alongside Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones as Frankie, but her beauty was not overlooked. Notes on the actress’s online biography remember her as “the first black beauty to make waves [in the postwar era],” and say she certainly did not fit old Hollywood’s mold. “[Pearl] was hardly anyone’s idea of a woman who might use sex to stalk a man down or to lash out at society,” it says. “Instead Pearlie Mae personified the lively down-home diva, the ordinary, chatty, wise cracking neighborly lady who was telling a generation scared of its own shadow to just cool it honey, sit back, relax, and have some fun.” We love that about her.
Long before she was after Marcus in Boomerang, Eartha Kitt’s sultry, unique voice and cat purrs made men weak. Her rendition of “Santa Baby” is one of the best known and her cabaret style of singing made her a household name on stage and in movies. Eartha was also as active off-screen as she was on as a huge advocate of same-sex marriage and gay rights.
Josephine Baker was an international sex symbol before there was such a thing. Her nicknames from “Bronze Venus” to the “Black Pearl” and “Créole Goddess” say it all. But more than being the most successful American entertainer working in France during her day, Josephine was also a political figure who led by example in her quest for civil rights when she adopted 12 multi-ethnic children which she dubbed “the rainbow tribe.” It’s hard to resist beauty and bravery like that.