The muse is not new to the world of style. Many high profile designers, artists, writers and other cultural icons were inspired by women, albeit intellectually and/or creatively; impelling them to leap to new innovative plateaus. As time as mysteriously went on, we know far too much (be it on celluloid or in books) about Andy Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick or John Lennon’s Yoko Ono, each woman inspiring their male counterparts. They’ve nay’ed and say’ed projects by their famous men who were in return inspired by them and went on to reach critical and commercial success. But like much of African American history in this country, little is known or even recognized by Black muses. Who are they? How did they inspire? Who did they inspire?
According to Webster’s definition of “the muse” (n) A source of inspiration; especially: a guiding genius. Rightly so, in Greek mythology, the muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and personified knowledge and the arts, especially in literature, poetry dance and music. Throughout time, the idea of the “muse” has been enveloped into the world of style. Although, Warhol found a guiding light in Sedgwick, 70’s fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, otherwise known as Halston, found one in the gangly and other worldly model known as Pat Cleveland. Born Patricia Cleveland in New York to saxophonist Johnny Johnston and artist Ladybird Cleveland, Pat Cleveland sashayed down runways in Halston’s glorious chiffon gowns, evoking Josephine Baker in her heyday. Although, I didn’t live during that time (thank God for the age of Tumblr and Youtube)—you could clearly see the poses and the arch of the back or limp of the wrist Cleveland borrowed from Baker. They looked similar and both moved like a fierce cheetah in the wild. It was clear that Baker was Cleveland’s muse.
Before we had the lovely Geneviève Jones, socialite and jewelry designer, gallivanting around New York City with high profile friends such as fashion designer Zac Posen and posing in Vogue, A’Lelia Walker, daughter of the legendary hair tycoon Madame C.J. Walker, was the original black socialite. Her parties were littered with the who’s who of roaring 20’s and 30’s glitterati. Artists of all kinds, writers, musicians, actors and politicians convened to “The Dark Tower”, part literary gathering place, part nightclub in one of the floors of her townhouse on 136th Street near Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Famous writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were inspired by her lavishness and hosting charm. So much so that in Hughes’ autobiography, The Big Sea, he mentioned that the day the Harlem Renaissance ended was when Walker, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by hypertension, died in 1931. Taking another note, Halle Berry has long listed Dorothy Dandridge as an influencer. Berry, who starred as Dandridge in an HBO film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, also paid homage to her in a tearful speech upon winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2001.
Black women have longed served as muses whether for each other or for male creative forces. Yet, history sometimes likes to play a blind eye. Today, the scale has shifted. Britney Spears has long counted Janet Jackson as her influencer. And on a macro level, the Knowles sisters are modern day muses for a legion of women (and men) across the globe. Beyonce, whose embodies the essence of Tina Turner with Vegas showgirl like charisma, has sung about female empowerment and carved a niche in the fashion industry with her mother, creating House of Dereon clothing. Not to leave asunder, her sister Solange has become fashion iconz—sparking many a debate about her colorful ensembles and her natural hair 'do. This has landed Solange in the prestige category of inking a Rimmel cosmetic deal and often featured in the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle as an “it” girl. If you go on any style blogger’s of color page today, you can see semblances of Solange in the wardrobe. Who does Solange counts as her muse? Diana Ross is one she often namedrops.
As we think what makes a muse today, in a culture where a multitude of Black women and men are on the style forefront of everything new, now and next. It’s fairly simple to reconnect to the past. Like we’ve heard time and time again, there was always one person who was a guide to where we are now.