28 Days of Black Fashion History: Naomi Sims

Naomi Sims is pictured in a 1970 cosmetics advertisement for Revlon

Before Naomi, there was Naomi . . . Sims, one of the first Black supermodels to grace the cover of a major US magazine. She would also serve as the blueprint for model turned entrepreneur, starting her own beauty empire after retiring from modeling.


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Harper’s Bazaar from 1969 shot by Chris van Wangenheim

Born Naomi Ruth Sims on March 30, 1948 in Oxford, Mississippi, she was the youngest of 3 daughters. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born and later moved with her 2 sisters and her mother to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s unclear why, but her mother put Naomi into foster care shortly thereafter.

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Sims was already 5’10” at the age of 13. But although this would be an asset in her later career as a model, it was a trait that would keep her ostracized and teased by her classmates in school. Yet, her painful upbringing and childhood insecurities would only push her to strive to be “someday really important” as she put it, an applaudable attitude for any Black child during a time when racial pride was being challenged and oppressed.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation 

Sims moved to New York to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1966 and simultaneously took night class at New York University. Needing some extra money, she decided to try modeling. However, her attempts at getting work were fraught with racial prejudice, with some agencies telling her she was too dark to model.

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An outtake from the October 1969 Life cover story “Black Models Take Center Stage”

Though frustrated, she persevered and decided to go directly to the photographers to get work. She got her break with photographer Gotta Peterson who agreed to photograph her, and at 19, she graced the cover of the August 1967 New York Times fashion supplement, “Fashions of The Times”. Even after this amazing spread, she still could not find work. So she approached Wilhelmina Cooper, a former model starting her own agency, and volunteered to send out copies of the Times supplement to ad agencies and attach cooper’s number. Cooper’s agency would receive commission if Naomi received any work. Sims received a telegram from Wilhelmina days later asking her to call them, but concerned that she had done something wrong, Naomi didn’t respond. Finally, a second and then third telegram arrived explaining that Naomi needed to come in because they had lots of work for her.

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Naomi Sims 1967 Cover of NY Times magazine

Within a year, Sims was earning $1,000 a week and had posed for her first national television campaign with AT&T wearing Bill Blass. The following year, she would appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal, a first for a Black model being featured in a mainstream women’s publication. “It helped me more than anything else because it showed my face. After it was aired, people wanted to find out about me and use me.” Before Sims, no dark-skinned model had ever received so much exposure and prestige. Sims would also be the first African American model to appear on the cover of Life magazine in October of 1969. The 1967 New York Times fashion magazine cover and the Life magazine cover were exhibited in “The Model as Muse” art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sims was now in high demand and began modeling for top designers including Halston, Fernando Sanchez and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. The New York Times wrote that her “appearance as the first black model on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1968 was a consummate moment of the Black is Beautiful movement.” She would also pave the way for rising runway stars like Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Beverly Johnson.

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Wearing Bill Blass in Harper’s Bazaar December 1968

Sims received the Model of the Year award in 1968 and 1970, the Woman of Achievement Medal in 197s, and then the Top Hat Award in 1974.

Naomi Sims wearing Halston
Naomi Sims in Halston

Sims was a savvy businesswoman, even as a model. She never got involved in gossip or drugs and designed her career so she worked less but with more prestigious clients that paid well. She also spent a lot of her time giving back to the community and charitable organizations, working with drug addicts, Vietnam veterans, and Black civic groups. She was an active member of the NAACP and the Northside Center for Child Development.

Sims modeled for 5 years, retiring with a cover on Cosmopolitan magazine, understanding that it’s a harder business to stay in long term. “I think for any young woman who qualifies, modeling is the most splendid job to have, but I wouldn’t want to continue in the spotlight forever . . . To always be aware of your face, your figure, to always have to wonder if your hair and nails are perfect — it’s not healthy. Maybe for a few years. Not for a lifetime.” Once she left modeling, Sims created the Naomi Sims company which started with a wig-making business for Black women. While modeling, she often did her own hair and makeup since many artists did not understand how to work with darker skin. She also noticed that most available wigs were not designed for Black hair. So she began experimenting herself at home, trying to create the right texture to look like straightened Black hair. Within five years, her wigs had annuals sales of $5 million. She later introduced fragrance, cosmetics and skincare products and eventually expanded into a multi-million dollar beauty empire. She even wrote several books on modeling, health and beauty for Black women, including “All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman” and had an advice column in the popular magazine Right On!

“There is nothing sadder than an old, broke model, and there are many models who have nothing at the end of their career,” Ms. Sims told The Times in 1969.

Steven Meisel Gap Advertisement in Harper's Bazaar March 1993
Steven Meisel GAP advertisement in Harpers Bazaar March 1993

Sims married Michael Findlay, a Manhattan art dealer, in 1973; however, her marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1991. Through her union, she had one son, Bob Findlay. Sims passed in 2009 but will always be remembered for her contributions to the fashion industry, her business savvy, and the doors she helped to open for other Black models in the industry.

Naomi Sims © 2005 KWAKU ALSTON

 

 

“Naomi was the first,” the designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”

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