Abstract: Barbara Watson Models: The Rise of African American Modelling Agencies in Early Postwar America

Laila Haidarali


This paper examines the role of African American modelling agencies during the early post-World War II era, circa 1945-1954, in advancing new tenets of raced and gendered self-presentation. In this period, the work of the model and the modelling agency helped reanimate representative understandings of African American womanhood both at home and abroad. African American modelling agencies worked to secure an image of womanhood that announced heterosexual appeal, feminized deportment and dress, and urban, middle-class status through the access of consumer goods. My paper focuses on Barbara Watson Models, the first African American modelling agency, opened in New York City in 1946. Barbara Watson, the agency's owner, epitomized the professional status of African American women in the modelling industry. A Harlemite by birth, Watson's status as an educated, elegant, upper middle-class woman assisted in reinforcing the professional face of Brandford Models. My paper analyzes Watson's role in advancing ideas and images of African American women as glamorous, poised and professional. It demonstrates the important role of Barbara Watson in helping to construct new positive images of African American women, although these representations remained rooted in conservative gender ideals of feminized deportment and respectable heterosexual expression.