The Black Fashion Fund exists to increase access to the fashion industry for Black creatives. A more beautiful mission in the fashion industry, which has historically been considered exclusive, does not come easily to mind. If you’re an aspiring Black fashionista, you may wonder at times if the field is worth pursuing. In an industry where Black folks are marginalized [Style, beauty and black identity - BBC Culture], and have been discriminated against historically, is it worth it?
This is what the Regina Reports are designed to answer. Regina comes from the Latin word meaning queen, and this will be a regular series on Black icons in the fashion and beauty industries throughout history, especially women. First in this series is the American icon, entrepreneur and race woman Madam C.J. Walker.
I. The Biography
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove to Owen and Minerva Breedlove on December 23, 1867. She was the youngest of five to the couple, yet was the first born free as the Civil War had ended on April 26, 1865, just over two years prior. A Louisiana resident, she was born in a town called Delta.
Walker's parents died when she was seven, and her older sister, Louvenia, took care of her; they moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi in search of freedom. Louvenia had married a man named Jesse Powell, and so Walker lived with her sister and her brother in law, and she began working as a washer woman. She gave birth to her daughter, A’Lelia, in 1885.
In the book Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon, historian Erica L. Bell explains that African American enslaved women would have worn their hair in braids covered by artistic patterned cloths, to work effectively in the fields. It is likely that Sarah's mother, Minerva, braided and covered her hair in this way, leading to a possible influence of the business that would carry Madam Walker into fortune and fame. Furthermore, as a washer woman, Sarah may very well have learned how to use er body (specifically, dresses) to sell her hair services in the future. In the late days of Reconstruction, white women would often randomly approach Black women wearing beautiful dresses to ask them about their services. How did C.J. Walker found her business?
II. The Beauty Maven
In 1889, at around 22 years old, Sarah moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she continued working as a washerwoman and a cook. Her own significant hair loss may have very well inspired her to start her business - Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower - in 1905, after she began using Annie Turbo Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hairgrower.” According to the National Women’s History Museum, Malone was an
African American businesswoman [Madam C.J. Walker | National Women's History Museum (womenshistory.org)] By this time, Sarah had moved to Denver where she married adman Charles Joseph Walker, for whom her business was named [Madam C.J. Walker | National Women's History Museum (womenshistory.org)]. Just prior to starting her business, she worked as a cook for a pharmacist and would learn the chemical formulas required to make the hair repair formula that propelled her to fame [Madam C.J. Walker | Biography, Company, & Facts | Britannica]
According to the HISTORY site, Walker’s method - called “the Walker System... involved scalp preparation, lotions, and iron combs.” She made a custom pomade that was uniquely successful; she emphasized the health of the women who would use it and encouraged African American women to sell her products. These saleswomen were called beauty culturalists [Madam C. J. Walker (history.com)].
In 1908, Walker founded the Lelia College of Beauty Culture in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [Madam C.J. Walker | Biography, Company, & Facts | Britannica], which was named after her daughter. Two years later, after divorcing C.J. Walker, [Madam C.J. Walker | National Women's History Museum (womenshistory.org)] she moved her business headquarters to Indianapolis, which “[had] access to railroads for distribution and a large population of African American customers.” She left the management of the former (Pittsburgh) branch to A’Lelia, and at the time of her death was worth nearly 10 million in 2022 dollars [Who Was Madam C.J. Walker? How Much Was She Worth?
Madam C.J. Walker died at the age of 51 from hypertension. However, she remains a well-known icon at the intersection of Black history and fashion industry. This article does not touch on all the details of her inspiring life, and more resources on her life are linked below.
Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon by Erica L. Bell
Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving by Tyrone McKinley Freeman. (This book explores Walker’s philanthropic ventures).