A fashion tribute to Cicely Tyson

Image Source: Creative Commons

On January 28th, the world lost the legendary actress and a true woman of style, Cicely Tyson. There is no question that Tyson accomplished a lot in her lifetime. As the first African American woman to have a leading role in a dramatic television series, she certainly opened a lot of Hollywood doors for many black actors and actresses that followed after her. However, she didn’t just impact the acting world. She was a great style icon and huge influencer in the fashion scene as well.

Before she was an award winning actress, she initially got her start as a model. Approached by her hairdresser, she was asked if she would be willing to model a look at his fashion show. Her stunning look caught the attention of several onlookers which encouraged her to keep pursuing the modeling career path. Eventually she dropped her day job as a secretary and enrolled in the Barbara Watson Modeling School, the first African American modeling agency in the country. Within a short period of time, Tyson was one of the top Black models in America with appearances in Vogue, Ebony and Harper’s Bazaar. She was earning up to $65 a week which was extremely impressive not only in the 1950’s but as a woman of color.

Image Source: Creative Commons

But as we all know, her true calling was acting, in which fate put all the right pieces in place. While waiting to meet with fashion editor Freda DeKnight, she ran into actress Evelyn Davis. It was Davis that encouraged to audition for a movie called The Spectrum. The film was never released, but it didn’t stop Tyson’s rise to stardom and her performance couldn’t let anyone question her undeniable talent.

She may have already had her appearance in the modeling industry, but it was her platform as an actress that truly allowed the world to appreciate her natural flair for style. Her grace and elegance translated into her wardrobe even beyond the stage as seen in 1966 with her white sheath dress paired with large bangles and white headscarf as she smiles in front of Sardi’s Restaurant. At her 1973 Oscar’s appearance for her portrayal of Rebecca Morgan in the film Sounder, she stepped in the spotlight with a stunning white long-sleeved gown designed by Bill Whitten. Accessorized with a fur drape adorned over her shoulders and a marcelled hair style, Tyson gave ode to her character by dressing in what Rebecca would wear. Following her Oscar’s appearance, at every event, appearance and award show, she made every outfit a style statement.

Regardless of the decade, each outfit she wore was on trend with the times. In celebration of the eclectic style of the 70’s, Tyson sported a groovy multicolored floral gown that she wore at the 1974 Emmy Awards (where she accessorized her dress with two Emmy awards she won from her role in the film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman). She stole the spotlight once again three years later at the 1977 Academy Awards where she wore a gorgeous white floor length lace gown and a thick red choker. And to end the 70’s decade with a bang, Tyson attended the 50th Academy Awards in 1978 decked in a white pleated skirt and tunic with a brown fur vest on top and beautiful gold jewelry to complete the look.

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As glamorous as the world of red carpet can be, there is also an ideal when it comes to fame, especially with age. The older you get most tend to back away from the spotlight. Tyson however, proved that talent comes in all ages and style will follow you for life. By the time the 80’s and 90’s rolled around Cicely Tyson was well into her late 50’s, and she was as much of a star then as she was when first started. In 1988 she played the role of Mrs. Browne in Women of Brewster where she wore the classic yellow tweed suit and skirt, well before the time of Cher in Clueless. Her looks were always on point and no one ever knew what to expect at events. Floral, sequins, ruffles, any styling technique you could think of, she wore it and pulled it off every time. 

Her presence onscreen continued as the decades went on and there was no indication of her stopping anytime soon. She had multiple notable roles in films and series such as Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Hoodlum (1997), Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994), and Because of Winn-Dixie (2005). Her presence on the red carpet would shine brighter from the 1980’s onwards after she met fashion designer B. Michael. The Givenchy to her Audrey Hepburn, they would be a fashion force duo to be reckoned with.

The designs he created for her were like pieces of art and turned heads every time she walked the carpet. For the next three decades the duo would create endless looks that would cause tons of buzz. Just think of the show stopping puff sleeved red dress she wore at The Heart Truth’s 2009 Red Dress Collection Show. Or think of the aw gasping two piece metallic number she wore when at the 2018 Governor’s Award where she received an Honorary Oscar (also making her the first African American woman to receive such an award).

The iconic pair was dynamite and anyone could see they were destined to be together. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, B. Miachel spoke proudly of his pairing with Tyson. “There is no ball gown that I build that she cannot carry,” he said. “Miss Tyson is any designer’s dream muse because she’s not afraid of anything.” 

Cicely Tyson will always be an inspiration and icon for all the generations to come. Her presence was captivating and her style was effortless. She was a testament to proving that fashion does not discriminate when it comes to age — she stole the show in her black fringe dress at the 2019 Academy Awards at the timeless age of 94. From the opening scene to the last credit, Tyson’s elegance, timelessness and stylish flair will forever have a place in our hearts.

Janelle Sessoms

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