Vintage Style Icon: Josephine Baker
By Lena on November 2, 2012
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker grew up to be one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th Century, a born entertainer, resistance fighter, humanitarian and vintage style icon.
The granddaughter of former slaves, Jospehine was only eight when she was sent to work as maid to a woman who was cruel to her, scalding her hands with hot water and hitting her when she made mistakes. She eventually left school, only aged 12, and lived as a street kid in the slums of St Loius, Illinois.
She would often dance as a way of begging for food and money, and eventually her natural grace and talent got her hired to a local Vaudeville show.
At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Baker headed to New York, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the popular Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) and The Chocolate Dandies (1924).
On October 2, 1925, she opened in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas.
Virtually an instant hit, Josephine Baker became one of the best-known entertainers in both France and much of Europe. She was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar, further adding to Baker’s embodiment of Art Deco’s fascination with the exotic.
“I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on. ”
Already a successful musical star, Josephine went on to appear in various silent films and became a muse for contemporary authors, painters, designers, and sculptors including Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior.
Despite her popularity in France, she never obtained the same reputation in America. During her visit to the United States in 1935-1936, her performances received poor opening reviews for her starring role in the Ziegfeld Follies and she was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee later in the run. Disappointed Baker returned to Paris in 1937 and married a Frenchman, Jean Lion, and became a French citizen.
Keep on reading for part two: Josephine’s work with the French Resistance and her rainbow family.
Pages: 1 2