How Supermodel China Machado Shifted Fashion’s Perception of Beauty

While representation in fashion still has a long way to go, L’OFFICIEL looks back on the revolutionary model’s incredible impact on what would have been her 91st birthday.
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China Machado Photographed by Richard Avedon in 1958.

As the first woman of color to grace the coveted cover of a major American fashion magazine, the revolutionary model China Machado gave fashion and its antiquated beauty standards a run for their money. To say Machado lived a remarkable life would be an understatement. Born Noelie de Souza Machado in 1929 in Shanghai, the fashion legend fled her home country with her parents in 1946 preceding the Japanese occupation of China. Machado grew up surrounded by a whitewashed depiction of beauty that hardly came close to resembling her Chinese, Portuguese, and Indian reflection, but, little did she know, her image would be the catalyst to open the door for many different non-white faces. 

Machado met world-famous Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín at 19. Throughout the exciting and jet-setting affair, she partied with the best of them, from Errol Flynn to Pablo Picasso. After the notorious philanderer left Machado for actress Ava Gardner (who was married to Frank Sinatra at the time), the pivotal force of fashion left for Paris and turned the industry on its head. 

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China Machado photographed by Jerry Schatzberg in 1960.

Beginning as a house model at Givenchy and then Balenciaga in the early '50s, Machado's chic disposition, picturesque elegance, and unrivaled regality took center stage, winning the hearts of many European fashion houses. Eventually becoming the highest-paid runway model of her day in Europe, Machado began earning $100 a month. Attempting to cash in on her “exotic” appearance, the model changed her name to China (pronounced “CHEE-na”), taking inspiration from the common derogatory catcall “chinitas.” After Oleg Cassini brought the burgeoning model with him to New York to walk for his 1958 runway show, Machado met the acquaintance of the inimitable fashion juggernaut, editor Diana Vreeland. It was through her that Machado would meet the photographer who would change her life and dub her "probably the most beautiful woman in the world," Richard Avedon.

The reigning photography prince of Harper’s Bazaar, Avedon booked Ms. Machado for a sitting, breaking racial boundaries and ultimately beginning one of the most iconic muse-photographer collaborations in all of fashion history. At the time, the magazine believed that images of a nonwhite woman would be too controversial and refused to publish the photos out of fear of losing subscribers. While the famed photographer’s contract with the publication was up for renewal, Avedon threatened to sever his ties with Bazaar unless his photographs of Machado appeared in the magazine. Ultimately, the image that would make the model the very first woman of color to grace the cover of a major American fashion glossy was shot by the renowned photographer.

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China Machado photographed by Brigitte Lacombe in 2011.

Aside from covering Harper’s Bazaar in 1971 and her illustrious participation in the historic Battle At Versailles fashion show in 1973, Machado decided to largely retire from modeling, but her impact on the fashion industry did not end there. Moving from posing in front of the camera to being behind the scenes, Machado began styling shoots for Avedon and then, ironically, became fashion director of the magazine that once balked at the idea of including her in its pages, Harper’s Bazaar. She went on to dabble in costume design for films, produce fashion-oriented television programs, aided in introducing the monthly magazine for women over 50, Lear’s, and even founded a high-end catering boutique. 

Just when you thought Machado had punched enough holes into the formidable glass ceiling and broken enough barriers as far as fashion’s antiquated beauty ideals are concerned, the fashion trailblazer signed a contract with IMG Models at the ripe age of 81 and starred in ad campaigns for Cole Haan and Barneys New York.

All while striking dramatic poses, Machado’s undoubtedly modelesque appearance epitomized her era and shattered whitewashed strongholds meant to keep “otherness” at bay. A fashion pioneer, Machado’s illustrious, legendary, and groundbreaking career represented a change in the current that would ultimately open the floodgates to a more diverse array of beauty. 



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