The image of a dancing Josephine Baker, clad in pasties and a skirt made from rubber bananas, is something of a cultural icon. However, today, the skirt’s meaning is very different than when Baker first wore it in 1926. Baker donned the revealing–and according to certain early 1900s moralists, “degrading”–skirt when she was still making a name for herself on the international stage. Her performances in the skirt soon gained her fame and fortune that she then used to fight Nazis in France and structural racism in America. As a performer, Baker used her sexuality and hyper awareness of image to manipulate her audience’s sexist and racist fantasies, and deployed them to build a platform for herself to dismantle the very social systems and cultural beliefs that they stemmed from. Today, stars like Beyoncé have worn their own permutations of the outfit. However, in doing so, they do not place themselves into the position in which Baker initially wore the outfit. Instead, they pay homage to Baker’s lifelong work.
Born on this day in 1906 as Freda McDonald, Baker did not at first seem likely destined for international celebrity. Her family was poor and Black in St. Louis, a city shaped by rigid inequality. By age 12 she had left school to support her family. Baker dreamt of a career in the performing arts and at age 15, she joined the Dixie Steppers traveling dance show, first as a dresser then as a chorus line girl. She dubbed herself Josephine Baker and auditioned for Shuffling Along, one of the first Black shows on Broadway. After two years of success, the young professional accepted a spot in the newly-formed La Revue Nègre, a Black theatre show that would run in Paris. In October of 1925, Baker stepped onto the stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Baker’s first performance stunned the French Capital. In the 1920s, the European art world held a fetish-like fascination with non-whiteness. La Revue Nègre’s show responded to the obsession with exaggerated depictions of enslaved people in the Americas and Indigenous peoples across the globe. Baker wore large lips in one scene—a look that mimicked the American minstrel cartoons—and wore feathers for her now-famous Danse Sauvage in another.Her performance spoke to two distinct, but related, types of infatuation with nonwhite bodies. First, European anthropologists took and studied photographs of nearly-nude Indigenous bodies across the globe to understand the human condition. The art scene, critics said, was lacking the uninhibited nature captured in these “exotic” photographs. The obsession with perceived savagery fed into a sexualized obsession with bodies reminiscent of anthropologic photographs. Popular films like In The Land of Head Hunters (1914) and Nanook of the North (1922) depicted North American Indigenous cultures as loaded with animalistic eroticism.
As a Black woman, Baker was perceived as a nonwhite, nubile other. Both the fetishization of nonwhite bodies and the erasure of Indigenous expression and personhood stimulated Paris’ obsession with Black American culture. Because of this, Paris had something America did not: a market for Black performers. When she first arrived in Paris, Baker made ,000 (about ,640 today) a month performing with La Revue Nègre.
Baker’s La Danse Sauvage quickly made her the star of La Revue Nègre. She appeared almost naked, clad mostly in feathers, swinging her hips as her equally exposed partner Joe Alex beat a drum. With rhythmic thrusts and sensual sways, Baker’s movements embodied the sexual language anthropologists projected onto nonwhite bodies. Her audience loved it. “In the short pas de deux of the savages, which came as the finale of the Revue Nègre, there was a wild splendor and magnificent animality,” performance attendee and dance critic André Levinson said. “The plastic sense of a race of sculptors came to life and the frenzy of African Eros swept over the audience. It was no longer a grotesque dancing girl that stood before them, but the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire.”
Only a year later, the dancer donned her famous banana skirt for Folies-Bergére’s civility/primitivism-themed La Folie du Jour. Sixteen rubber bananas hung from a low-slung belt around the dancer’s waist. Along with matching pearl necklaces and jewels, the iconic costume brilliantly appeased and critiqued her audience’s most lurid fantasies. The skirt’s phallic appendages evoked France’s colonial involvement in both the rubber and banana trades. It seemed to present Baker as a colonial sex object, but in doing so highlighted the exploitative nature of the economic and political orders that made her one. Plus, the allegory-loaded skirt’s silhouette subverted ballet’s proper tutu.
Baker was not the only performer on the nightclub circuit to perform African-inspired dances or wear revealing clothing, but she possessed a unique understanding of the racial and power dynamics underlying Paris’ obsession with jazz. She was “a creature neither infrahuman nor superhuman but somehow both,” American poet E.E. Cummings wrote. “A mysterious unkillable Something, equally nonprimitive and uncivilized, or beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic.” Baker embodied an ever-changing character that audience members like Cummings hoped to simultaneously dominate, tame, and embody. Throughout her career, Baker willingly played dominated women of different origins, one time portraying a Vietnamese woman.
But Baker was sexy, not a sex object. Her artistic “genius,” critic André Rouverge wrote in 1926, “let the body make fun of itself,” and her work engaged colonialist sexual fantasies not by pandering, but by parodying. Her supposedly primitive banana skirt was paired with elegant jewelry. Even as she danced, symbols of wealth and refinement bounced around her neck.
In a world increasingly defined by widely-available communication and images, Baker was one of the earliest celebrities to be truly aware of how one’s image and likeness shaped public opinion. Though forever tied to the revealing banana skirt, she distanced herself from the role of transient performer. Outside of her music halls and clubs, Baker was a refined celebrity and socialite. She took lessons in French, singing, and etiquette. She wore dresses made for her by fashion icons like Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet. With her beautiful clothes and signature soft gelled wavy hair, La Joséphine was a part of the French cultural fixation. To Parisian artists, she embodied a unique type of gritty glamor that they had been pursuing since the end of the war. She was invited to every party, and introduced to everyone.Baker maintained a great level of control over her physical likeness. She worked intimately with illustrator Paul Colin. When his images of Baker made her even more famous, it was in part because she had a say in producing them. Colin’s prints usually featured a lanky Baker in motion. In one, she dances in her banana skirt. The fruit almost twirls around her, as her arm is raised joyously and her back is to the camera. It is as if Baker is dancing for herself, stirring a desire in the image’s viewer for her to turn around and reveal herself. Colin perfectly captured her essence through his illustrations, and it is rumored that Baker danced as he drew her. While leaping and twirling, she talked him through the movements. Colin’s postcards not only represent Baker, but they also represent an artistic collaboration between two great minds. The performer told Colin how she’d like to be represented, and the popular postcards illustrate an example of a Black woman having a degree of autonomy over her own portrayal.
Baker also brilliantly manipulated public imagination with her acting in silent films. She played permutations of her nightclub character, exposing herself to an even wider audience. Between the personas she inhabited on stage and in films and the one she inhabited in the press, Baker embodied an impossibly elusive, glamorous persona, somehow both perfectly proper and completely unrestrained.
She didn’t wear the banana skirt for long, but the message was clear: she had known how people wanted her to act, and had done it until she turned herself into such a star she no longer needed the prop. Now, she was on her own terms.
Baker then leveraged her position as a performer and actress to launch a successful career as a beauty entrepreneur. She sold foundations and pomades to the women of Paris in case they wanted to look like her. And they did. Women across Paris gelled their hair to mimic Baker’s iconic wavy curls. She accumulated fame and fortune, adopted children, and moved into a castle. But perhaps more important, was her work as an activist.
The entertainer’s sexuality proved a key military asset in fighting the Nazis. Remembering the structural racism that convinced her to leave her home, Baker was disgusted by Germany’s occupation of her adopted country, and risked her life to spy for the French Resistance. Baker’s career took her all over Europe, and even Nazi officers wanted a chance to party with the famous dancer. At social gatherings, Baker flirted with German officers to learn military secrets that she would then share with her Resistance comrades. She also smuggled the names of Jewish families in need through her luggage in secret ink, and complained about her busy schedule if German officials tried to inspect her belongings. Throughout the war, Baker’s ability to charm Nazis saved lives.
After the war ended she resumed her career as an entrepreneur and glamorous celebrity. She helped revive the couture industry and was a huge supporter of now canonized houses like Balmain. More importantly, though, once the war ended Baker periodically returned home.
She dedicated a portion of her life to fighting against both institutionalized American racism and the widespread cultural beliefs that she initially manipulated and subverted early in her career. She spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. Older adults might call her dancing devilish, she said, but did that really matter? Had Baker pursued a career of modesty, she would never have been so successful. Without her success she couldn’t have been a spy and activist that saved countless lives. Her controversial costumes helped her find an audience for her voice. “And when I screamed loud enough, they started to open that door just a little bit, and we all started to be able to squeeze through it. Not just the colored people, but the others as well, the other minorities too,” she said in her speech.
Baker not only spoke at the March on Washington but publicly boycotted racist restaurants and hotels. In 1951 she had embarked on a nation-wide anti-segregation tour and refused to perform for segregated audiences, forcing nightclub and theatre owners to integrate their venues. She wrote about American racism for newspapers in France. The NAACP even named her Woman of the Year, and later dedicated May 20 as Josephine Baker Day. Similarly, her beloved France never forgot the sacrifices she made during World War II. When Baker passed, the French military gave her a 21 Gun Salute, making her the first American woman to be buried with full French military honors.
When Beyoncé wore a replica of Baker’s banana skirt in 2006, she wasn’t dressed as just a dancer in a nightclub. She dressed as Josephine Baker, a dancer who both worked in nightclubs and stood with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When The Josephine Baker Story, a film about the dancer’s life, was pitched, Diana Ross pushed the project because she firmly believed that “America and young Black women should know her.” (It ultimately became a 1991 TV movie starring Lyn Whitfield.)
By reclaiming a supposedly primitive aesthetic, Baker forever changed the fashion industry. From the prevalence of fruit motifs, mini skirts, bralessness, toplessness, and ballerina-inspired looks on runways today, she shifted the way we look at trends with problematic roots. In 2011, Prada even dedicated a significant portion of its Spring collection—some of which seemed to lean too heavily on contemporary racist tropes—to honoring the icon. Her signature finger waves have also found their place on the runways and red carpets today. Plus, Baker’s signature finger waves can be found on runways and red carpets today. Givenchy and Marc Jacobs replicated the star’s signature style for Spring/Summer 2017 and Fall/Winter 2016, respectively. For the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of her film “Loving,” Ruth Negga presented her own take on Baker-esque curls. Solange Knowles even paid homage to the star in the music video for “Don’t Touch My Hair.”
Baker spoke often about how she had to “run away” to Paris to make a life for herself. Structural inequality in America made it impossible for her to succeed there as a Black woman, and she dedicated her adult years to changing that for future generations. “I wanted to make it easier for you,” the star once said. “I want you to have a chance at what I had. But I do not want you to have to run away to get it. And mothers and fathers, if it is too late for you, think of your children. Make it safe here so they do not have to run away, for I want for you and your children what I had.” Her words and her actions not only influenced fashion and culture and provided an early example of reclaiming weaponized aesthetics, but also continue to inspire people today.
Happy 114th Birthday, Josephine Baker. You are sorely missed, fondly remembered, and deeply loved.END
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