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Brains & Beauty: The Legendary Princess Elizabeth of Toro

By : Alex Aubry
Brains & Beauty: The Legendary Princess Elizabeth of Toro

Beyond the ongoing conversation surrounding the lack of diversity in fashion, is the realization that the industry can play a vital role in fostering a sense of self-esteem and self-worth in girls and women of diverse backgrounds. To see oneself reflected within the pages of fashion publications and on the runway conveys a message, both uplifting and affirming, that style and beauty are neither confined by race, geography or culture, but are a shared experience that crosses borders.

 

No one understood this better than Princess Elizabeth of Toro, who used her position as one of the first successful models of color to change perceptions about a people and place. Beautiful, intelligent, elegant and articulate, this princess was unlike any the fashion world had seen before. Born in 1936 in the ancient Kingdom of Toro, located in present-day western Uganda, Princess Elizabeth accumulated a number of historical footnotes that include the third African woman admitted to Cambridge, as well as the first African woman to become a lawyer in England and Uganda, for which she served as ambassador to the United States, Germany and the Vatican.

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In addition to her many accomplishments, the princess would also play a significant role in the fashion world. In 1967, Elizabeth received a personal invitation from her friends Princess Margret and her husband Lord Snowdon, to appear as a guest model in the widely publicized Commonwealth Fashion Show at Marlborough House in London. Mannequin-slim and regal at 6-feet tall, the princess left a lasting impression on the gathered press and audience when she came down the runway in a traditional Ugandan costume.

 

An instant hit, she was soon being approached by London’s top modeling agencies and fashion publications. For the Cambridge-educated lawyer, the decision to switch careers and become a model was driven less by a love of fashion than a desire to bring attention to her native Toro and Africa on a broader scale. “A major consideration in making this decision was which career would be the most effective way of symbolizing, projecting and preserving the torch of my black culture,” noted the princess in her memoir, adding that although modeling was considered a “rather frivolous thing to do,” she nevertheless saw it as a means to an end.

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“It enabled me to make an important point regarding my beloved country. Beauty is not one’s own but rather a reflection of one’s people, one’s country. It is an asset one holds in trust. At that time, a black model appearing in top magazines was rare. I wanted to destroy the myth of white superiority in terms of beauty and sophistication,” added Elizabeth, who singed up with the Peter Lumley Agency, one of the top modeling agencies in London at the time. She immediately began commanding high fees to appear in publications and fashion shows, a rarity for a model of color in the ‘60s. During the period she modeled in London from 1967-68, Princess Elizabeth would appear in the British editions of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Queen, photographed by the likes of David Bailey and Earl Patrick Lichfield (a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II).

 

“If I had chosen the path of law, I never would have been exposed to the people I met through modeling,” confided the princess, whose influential friends included Sir Hugh Fraser, a noted enthusiast of African affairs who was married to the historian and author Lady Antonia Fraser. He would introduce the princess to William David Ormsby-Gore (Lord Harlech), a prominent politician and diplomat, who served as British ambassador to the United States during the early to mid-1960s and was a close friend of the Kennedys. Another important friendship she developed during this period was with the famed ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, whom the princess had met at Covent Garden with Rudolf Nureyev. It was Dame Fonteyn who introduced Princess Elizabeth to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at a party, thus sparking another friendship.

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Jacqueline Kennedy and Lord Harlech would play a pivotal role in introducing her to American Vogue’s legendary editor in chief Diana Vreeland, thus launching her career in New York from 1968-1970. “One morning, Lord Harlech had walked into the Lexington Avenue offices of American Vogue, much to the astonishment of its editor in chief, Diana Vreeland. Harlech’s standing in America was second only to [Winston] Churchill’s... It was Jacqueline who had arranged the interview between Lord Harlech and Diana Vreeland. He told her, ‘America loves beauty and the princess cannot fail,’” recalled Elizabeth in her memoir, who shortly thereafter received a formal invitation from Vreeland to fly to New York to be photographed for Vogue.

 

The result was a four-page spread in the publication’s June 1968 issue shot by noted Italian photographer Gianni Penati; the first time a black model was accorded such an honor in Vogue. Although the publication wasn’t known for paying its models well, it nevertheless offered the princess the ultimate exposure on both sides of Atlantic, and was a watershed moment in her modeling career. Elizabeth soon joined the ranks of pioneering black models such as Donyale Luna and Naomi Sims, who were regularly shot for Vogue by legendary lens-man Irving Penn. While in New York, Elizabeth also rented an apartment with friend and fellow Vogue model Lauren Hutton, who shared her love of Africa.

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Princess Elizabeth would go on to sign with the Ford Modeling Agency and pose for a number of publications including Life, Look and Ebony. Yet despite her successful modeling career, as a princess of the Kingdom of Toro, her duty to the monarchy was uncompromising and simply non-negotiable; a resolve that was tested during her time in New York, when her agency offered to pay her a substantial sum of money to pose nude for a fashion publication. Elizabeth staunchly refused saying, “I will not do a nude. A princess is a princess and I will someday return to my country.” Despite her refusal, she continued to experience success, becoming the first black model to appear on the cover of the American issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

 

When she had posed for photographer Bill King, he had neglected to inform her that she would be on the cover of Bazaar’s November 1969 issue. She would only find out after the fact, when passing a magazine stall on Fifth Avenue. Although her face was partially obscured by the magazine’s title, it nevertheless marked the first time a top fashion magazine had featured a black model on its cover. “My heart missed a beat as I stared down at the magazine in my hand and my face stared back up at me. Dumbfounded, I handed the vendor some money, and as he handed me change, he said, ‘congratulations!’ Dazed, I headed home. My phone had begun to ring incessantly with friends and colleagues who had seen the issue,” recalled Princess Elizabeth, of that pivotal moment which would forever change the face of fashion.

 

"Beauty is not one’s own but rather a reflection of one’s people, one’s country. It is an asset one holds in trust."