Known as the “Black Marilyn Monroe,” singer Joyce Bryant was a popular celebrity in the late 40’s and early 1950’s. Identified for her silver hair and signature plunging, mermaid-dress style, the fashions of Bryant were as important as her singing career.
Bryant colored her hair with silver radiator paint after finding out that she was to perform alongside the iconic Josephine Baker. She paired the hair with a silver dress and coat that was an instant hit, and the striking color stuck with her throughout her performing career.
Bryant was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, a strict Christian religion that disallows flamboyant expression. This gave an ironic spin to Bryant’s sexy attire, which helped her become the “Black Marilyn Monroe.” She would later end her career with a factor being her “sexy” image. It was causing her personal pain in that she had to deal with sexist remarks and it collided with her upbringing. Plus, that radiator paint wasn’t too great on her hair.
Although her attire caused her career’s demise, it also helped establish her public character as a strong, sexy woman of color during Jim Crow-era America. Singer and icon Etta James recalled idolizing Bryant for her look. “I didn’t want to look innocent. I wanted to look like Joyce Bryant. […] I dug her,” James said in her 2003 autobiography, Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. “I thought Joyce was gutsy and I copied her style–brazen and independent.”
Although she was a sexy siren with a unique look, it was that look that helped establish an overlooked woman into a strong and inspiring figure that we still treasure today.