Born in America, and adopted by France in 1925, the renowned singer, dancer and actress Josephine Baker (1906–1975) is our fashion throwback icon this week. As a semi-literate black female who grew up in Missouri, she would undoubtedly have faced many obstacles in order to fulfill her dreams in America. Working in Harlem gave her a taste of life in the limelight, but it was after her move to Paris in ‘25 that she became a star. Baker left the racially-hostile environment of America because she knew she would not find success there. She knew she would not struggle to succeed in France in the same way she had done in America. In her own words, ‘’I like Frenchmen very much, because even when they insult you they do it so nicely.” She became an instant fascination and overnight star in France after her first provocative performance, wearing a bodysuit with dramatic peacock-like feathers accentuating her rear.
Image: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
Her success peaked at the time of the rise of Art Deco and she was a flawless master of the style. Never one to shy away from a challenging pose, she often presented herself naked or scantily clad on stage and in photographs. In doing so she crossed the boundaries set for her, and in her very image challenged her audience. Was she a primal savage? A woman embracing her sexuality? A flamboyant Jazz star? Her self-representation was something new, and, as expressed in the 1986 Channel Four Films documentary, Chasing a Rainbow, ‘’Paris loved her for it’’. She used her mystique to her advantage. As Phyllis Rose writes in Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time: “they thought she was from the jungle. She knew very well she was from St. Louis.”
Baker was a muse to famous artists and designers like Picasso and Dior, and her fashion inspiration is still felt today. Most notably, her famous banana skirt has been replicated by contemporary style icons such as Beyoncé.
Images: (left) Josephine Baker in her banana skirt, (right) Beyoncé performing at Fashion Rocks in 2006, both courtesy of Getty Images.
Baker gained money, fame and an element of power over her audience, as she guided their minds towards the problem of hypersexualisation of black women. Baker’s biography, Jazz Cleopatra, gives more insight to the woman she was: an activist, entertainer and mother to 12 adopted multicultural children. While she may have been perceived as just an entertainer by some, she knew who she was, understood the space she existed in, and stood in playful control of her image.
Image: Josephine Baker, with all her children and her husband Jo Bouillon at Les Milandes. Courtesy of Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images.