When Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said that “well behaved women seldom make history” she must have been thinking of the incomparable Josephine Baker, whose life proves that being well behaved is overrated. This trendsetting chanteuse became an international star despite being born with milk chocolate skin in a country that treated her like a second class citizen for it. While some style icons come in and out of fashion as trends change and evolve, Josephine Baker’s iconic status has never wavered.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri to Carrie McDonald and, according to her birth certificate, Eddie Carson, who may or may not have been her biological father-cue Maury. By the age of 12 the young girl who would go on to the labeled the Bronze Venus, had dropped out of school and was living on the streets of St. Louis dancing on street-corners to survive. Luckily, her talent garnered the attention of the right people and by 15 she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show.
Eventually her talent as a performer coupled with a Jazz Age love for all things seemingly exotic landed Josephine opening at the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées in Paris, where her practically nude erotic dancing made her an instant success. From there she moved to the Folies Bergéres where she performed the infamous Danse Sauvage in a skirt consisting of a string of artificial bananas reportedly designed by a lover of either Paul Poiret or Jean Cocteau. (To this day that iconic performance has been referenced by everyone from cartoon characters to Beyonce and beyond.)
In due course, like many great performers Josephine’s act evolved to encompass dancing en pointe and singing which took months of training with a vocal coach. After a short while the “petite danseuse sauvage” who became “la grande diva magnifique” became the most successful American entertainer in France and starred in three films, becoming the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture. While Josephine’s star burned bright abroad, she was the toast of Paris café society and served as a muse for everyone from Langston Hughes and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior, she never obtained the same reputation in America due in large part to her divine complexion.
While Josephine’s career spanned decades and even helped resurrect France’s fashion industry post-WWII with a few well designed costumes by Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, Josephine Baker is and will always be synonymous with Art Deco. Her Eton crop, adopted almost the second she stepped off the boat in Paris, sparked a fashion trend and her over the top costumes accentuated her exotic looks which were all the rage in a decade that had just seen the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. It was rumored that it was no coincidence that tanned skin became popular during her rise to stardom-that has also been credited to another rags to riches chanteuse turned designer Coco Chanel.
Always one to start trends and never follow them, Josephine Baker was also known to have an intense love of fashion, occasionally sketching over images in Vogue when she was traveling by train as a chorus girl. This elegant chanteuse who definitely knew that normal gets you nowhere was also known to perform on stage with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, adorned in a diamond collar. Its also worth mentioning that in true trendsetter style, Josephine was lightyears ahead of Brad and Angelina with her own Rainbow Tribe.
Armed more gumption than a little bit and the ability to evolve without abandoning her true inner voice, Josephine Baker set the stage for legions of aspiring performers despite never gaining true success at home. As one of my personal muses, right up there with Coco Chanel, Josephine’s drive and passion prove that if you believe in yourself and are true to who you are, nothing can stand in your way.
Without further ado I present the Créole Goddess, Josephine Baker. Roll that footage mama….
Layouts by SB.
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