Abstract: Modeling Blackness in Civil Rights America

Elspeth H. Brown


This paper explores the history of black modeling agencies in the early civil rights era, 1946-1960. Whereas historians have conceptualized market segmentation as a development instigated by mainstream merchandisers seeking new consumer markets, this paper argues that black marketing professionals invented the "Negro market" in order to render blacks visible as a consumer demographic and, therefore, to participate in the promises of postwar consumer citizenship. The use of black models in advertising directed toward black consumers emerged as a key aspect of this consumer citizenship. I historicize early civil rights era modeling with a brief snapshot of Negro modeling work before the founding of the agencies in 1946. Then, I focus on the New York City-based Brandford Agency, which prioritized the development of a market for commercial rather than fashion models, due to the impenetrability of New York's fashion color line. I will offer an argument about how the Negro modeling agencies developed a counter-archive of commercial imagery that borrowed from discourses of both bourgeois respectability and mid-century glamour to define a commercial space for the display of the black female body that used the market to sidestep the older stereotypes of the asexual mammy on the one hand, and the hypersexual jezebel on the other.