Luna Year: The Short Life of Donyale Luna
The 1960s proved to be a decade of international daring in the fashion industry. Yves St Laurent, in his debut fashion show in Paris, was the first fashion designer to use a Black model on his runway. After his break with Dior, Yves St. Laurent not only challenged traditional female silhouettes with his structured designs, but he set a precedent of rebellion and inclusion by including the Black model Fidelia in his very first show in 1962. He also advertised his clothes in Black magazines namely, Ebony Magazine. Advertising to Black audiences was seen as a marketing taboo at the time but with the continued legacy of success for YSL, his challenging of the status quo was to his ultimate benefit.
Paco Rabanne in Spain was also a maverick of inclusion in what was considered to be the fashion apartheid. In his July 1964 fashion show he used Black models which enraged, specifically, the American Press. “’I watched them coming,’ he said, ‘the girls from American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. ‘Why did you do that?’ they said. ‘You don’t have the right to do that, to take those kind of girls. Fashion is for us, white people.’” They spat in his face and he was blacklisted by the fashion cartels until Black models became the “it” thing in the 1970s.
In this fashion climate, Black models suffered. Rarely were they given the chance to break into major fashion markets. One woman, however, was able to transcend racial barriers and become world renowned as one of the most beautiful women in the world, and a top super model.
Born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit, Michigan on August 31, 1945 to Nathaniel and Peggy Freeman, stage named Donyale Luna would be discovered early. In 1963, at the age of 18 she stopped on her way to the prestigious Cass High School to observe a photo shoot of Ford Cars that was going on nearby. It was photographer David McCabe who noticed the striking 6ft tall young woman and told her if she was ever in New York to give him a call. A year later that’s exactly what he got. He did a shoot with her and sent the photos out to various agencies. From there, her career took off.
She had her first cover in 1965 when she was 20 years old. Harper’s Bazaar printed a painting of her as their cover photo. Although the image depicted the features of Donyale Luna and was modeled after her form, her skin was noticeably lightened making for an ambiguous image that was indicative of the fashion industries inability to accept models of color.
It was in 1966 she made history. She became the first Black model on the cover of any of the Vogue magazines. Her cover was on British Vogue, and although it was a photograph and her racial identity was clear, her hand covered her nose and lips. Some have speculated that this was an effort to blur her racial identity. Whatever the case was, Time Magazine herald 1966 “The Luna Year.” They said she was “a stunning Negro model whose face had the hauteur and feline grace of Nefertiti.”
Luna went on to have a diverse and international career staring in multiple Andy Warhol films, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, dozens of magazine spreads, and films across Europe. Her fabulous life was wrought with the influences of celebrity including drug usage. In 1975 she admitted to loving LSD. “I think it’s great. I learned that I like to live, like to make love, I really do love somebody, I love flowers, I love the sky, I like bright colors, I like animals. [LSD] also showed me unhappy things- that I was stubborn, selfish, unreasonable, mean, that I hurt other people”
Drugs would ultimately be the demise of her career and her short life. She began exhibiting unprofessional behavior and not showing up for castings which put her career on the decline. On May 17, 1979, at the age of 32, she died of a drug overdose in Rome, Italy leaving behind a husband, photographer Luigi Cazzaniga and an infant daughter Dream Cazzaniga.
The life and career of Donyale Luna is more than a historic first for Black women. She challenged race in an industry that still struggles to include Black models in their campaigns and on their runways. Luna herself struggled with her identity, especially in America, which is why she spent most of her time overseas in Europe. “Back in Detroit I wasn’t considered beautiful or anything, but here I’m different…They were looking for a new kind of model, a girl who is beautiful like you’ve never seen before.” She also confided in her husband about feeling rejected by both the Black and White community, which is why she self-identified as “mulatta.”
In a world of constructed race we can take cues from the first Black super model to embrace ourselves and our own beauty. Donyale Luna was thriving in an industry that was years from accepting someone like her, and she never strayed from embracing her own splendor.