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Style Spotlight: Dorothy Dandridge

Style Spotlight: Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge is a name that is often over looked in Hollywood history, but she was a really remarkable woman, the first of her time in many aspects, and a testament to the lives, loves and struggles of women of colour in the mid-century world. October is Black History Month here in the United Kingdom and we could not think of a better person to shine the Style Spotlight on this month.

Born in 1922, Dorothy Dandridge had a tumultuous childhood, akin to many of her Silver Screen colleagues. Moving to LA in 1930 Dorothy and her sisters, Vivian and Etta,  were pushed into the spotlight by their mother. Singing for large audiences, alongside icons such as Cab Calloway, at the Cotton Club, young Dorothy often confronted the racism and segregation that plagued the era. This is something that would affect her career throughout her life, and, it could be argued, her legacy. When we think of stars of the 1950s we think of people like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Jane Russell. We rarely remember the artists of colour in popular culture, and this is doing their craft a disservice.

Dorothy Dandridge collage of three vintage 1950s formal red-carpet outfits for Hollywood events and photoshoots

It wasn't until the 1950s that her career really sky-rocketed. After her divorce in 1951, Dorothy took to the stage once more singing alongside Desi Arnaz at sell-out gigs, and acted beside Harry Bellafonte in Carmen Jones (1954). It was for this role that she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress - the first African American to receive such an accolade. However, she never matched this success again. Dorothy never wanted to be type-casted into the stereotypical (and overtly racist) roles that Hollywood offered her. She wanted the leading-lady roles, the strong roles, but, as Harry Belafonte said, she was the right person in the wrong time. An active member of the Civil Rights movement, sometimes speaking alongside Martin Luther King Jnr., this was not going to be a fight she would back down on.

After a decline in work, Dorothy Dandridge began drinking heavily, mixing alcohol with anti-depressants to form a dangerous cocktail. She could no longer afford the 24 hour care required for her daughter, Harolyn, and so she had to make the heart-breaking choice to put Harolyn into a state institution. Soon after Dorothy suffered a nervous breakdown. Tragically, on 8th September 1965, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her Hollywood home at the age of just 42. 

Collage of black and white photos of Dorothy Dandridge in formal Hollywood events in the 1950s

Now we have reflected on Dorothy Dandridge's life and career, let's shine a light on her vintage fashion. Dorothy was most well known for a her tailored, structured and streamlined clothing, favouring trousers over skirts when dressing casually. There are photos of her look oh-so-casual but oh-so-elegant in cigarette pants and corresponding tops. Honestly, style goals. In an era of very rigid norms, Dorothy was not afraid to break the mould in her style and her acceptance of Hollywood stereotypes.

When she would glam up for award ceremonies and other red carpet events, Dorothy Dandridge would show off her spectacular hourglass figure in clinging pencil or fishtail dresses. She had one feature which she always highlighted: her shoulders. If Betty Grable was famous for her legs, Dorothy Dandridge matched her in the décolletage department. Often choosing strapless gowns and off-the-shoulder tops, Dorothy highlighted her sleek collarbones and shoulders, adding an eternal touch of femininity to her outfits.

Let's talk jewellery shall we! Like others of the 1950s, Dorothy was often adorned in metallics and jewels. To highlight her famous shoulders and collar bones delicate necklaces were the finishing touch to many outfits. She accompanied these with gem encrusted drop earrings which drew the eye in and complimented her cropped and coiffured hair. Occasionally, Dandridge would dabble with the bangles, sticking to the metallic sort, and wearing them in singles as a cuff either on her wrist or further up her arm.

Collage of three photos of vintage Hollywood star Dorothy Dandridge at home or dressed down in the 1950s

Dorothy Dandridge was taken from this world far too soon. She was a force of triple-threat talent who was determined to shape the world to allow women of colour to thrive in the arts. By refusing the settle for what Hollywood offered her, she broke the mould. It cost her dearly, but it paved the way for future African American women, letting them know that they could be just as successful as their white colleagues. Her style, talent and legacy is only just being recognised by the wider world, and it's about time too.