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February 25, 2024

Amazing Photographs Captured Harlem Fashion Scenes in 1950

Eve Arnold was expressing misgivings about her professional relationship with Marilyn Monroe, and her intimate portraits of the actress that would establish Arnold as one of the 20th century’s leading photojournalists. But Arnold, who died in 2012, could equally have been talking about another, little-known project: her year-long study of backstage scenes at community fashion shows in Harlem, shot in black and white at the start of her career in the early 1950s.

This was a time when the mainstream fashion industry was entirely white, and black women were not considered to be clients. The models Arnold photographed made the clothes themselves and put on shows in hired venues for paying black audiences. It was a whole developed, professional scene. And Arnold was everywhere: present, but invisible.

The Harlem series was Arnold’s first assignment. What she produced was a nuanced study of style, elegance and self-reliance, captured just before the US civil rights movement.

The photographs of models, often mid-change, and the crews of agents, dressers, make-up artists and security guards that surrounded them, exude energy and action. In the early 1950s, Arnold’s reportage approach to fashion photography was unusual, an antecedent to ubiquitous shots of 1990s supermodels backstage. But it was nothing like the contemporaneous static, posed editorial images of white models shot in studios by Arnold’s 1950s contemporaries, such as Nina Leen or Richard Avedon.

(Photos by © Eve Arnold / Magnum Photos)


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