Josephine Baker | The Symbolized Beauty of Black American Culture - Black Pearl
Author - Divyashree Thacker
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Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906, Josephine caused a splash on the 1920’s Parisian scene, thanks to her enthusiastic dance moves and unparalleled beauty. She made her French debut at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with La Revue Nègre, an act where she performed a Danse Sauvage dressed in nothing but a feather skirt. Her moves had magic in them–she was an overnight sensation and in 1927, she was the highest paid entertainer in Europe. After beginning her comeback to the stage in 1973, Josephine Baker died of a cerebral haemorrhage on April 12, 1975, and was buried with military honours.
Josephine Baker rose from the poverty stricken streets of St. Louis, Missouri to become the first black world-famous entertainer.
She was a dancer and singer extraordinaire, stage performer and movie actress, mother, chateau owner, activist, entrepreneur and 20th century icon.
Josephine Baker knew how to use what she had to get what she wanted. Josephine Baker’s life, style and originality has inspired generations.
Josephine Baker was born on June 3, 1906 in Saint Louis, Missouri to parents Carrie McDonald and Eddie Carson. By age 15, she was a dancer living in Harlem, NY working in the touring show of Shuffle Along. In 1925, she was plucked from the show’s chorus line to become the headliner of a new musical and the first all black show opening in Paris, “La Revue Negre”. The moment Josephine danced “La Danse de Sauvage” in “La Revue Negre” she took Paris by storm. Then Josephine Baker made the world her oyster.
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Josephine was initially rejected in America as being “too skinny and too dark”, but those attributes became her assets in Paris. They named her the “Bronzed Venus”, the “Black Pearl”, and the “Creole Goddess”.
Baker personified an image the french coined exotic and erotic but in the process she introduced Europeans to the beauty and style of African American women and she celebrated her own authenticity.
Josephine Baker lived an astounding life. In the 1920s and '30s, Baker was a hugely successful dancer, actress and comedian who was slinking and shaking her way through Paris and Harlem nightclubs.
By the 1940s, she had become a socialite, a status that helped her own quest to help France during World War II, when she was not only a correspondent to the French
Military smuggling Jewish refugees, but a sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. By the 1950s and '60s, she was a civil rights activist, working with the NAACP to rally against police brutality and racism, and speaking alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington.
Undoubtedly, she lived a life that left an impact on a wide swath of communities, but what she is perhaps less known for is her impact on fashion.
Throughout her career in the United States and France, she unwittingly became a pioneering style icon, introducing many garments and trends that we still see to this day.
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In that sense, she is truly unsung.
In Paris in the summer of 1926, Baker swiveled her hips onstage at Folies Bergère wearing a skirt constructed of bejewelled, rubber bananas. It hit far above her knee. It rode low on her hips. Baker was wearing a miniskirt nearly 40 years before the word "miniskirt" had been coined by Mary Quant in the early 1960s.
As with many of the trends Baker launched into popularity, she was far ahead of her time.
Much like the miniskirt most of us are familiar with today, Baker's skirt and performance wasn't without its own political message. As Vogue put it at the time, "there was a much deeper and disturbing fascination with the widely accepted belief in black people's inherent primitiveness.”
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When she swung onstage in that fiercely swinging banana skirt in 1926, Baker brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination. Crossing her eyes, waving her arms, swaying her hips, poking out her backside, she clowned and seduced and subverted stereotypes.
By subverting stereotypes of African people, she was able to find massive success.
One year after that performance, she was one of the highest-paid performers in Europe. In 2006, Beyoncé paid tribute to Baker's power and pro-African legacy at the Fashion Rocks Concert, wearing a bejewelled bra and skirt crafted with yellow satin bananas.
When Baker was onstage shaking and gyrating about, she wanted to be seen. To ensure this, she wore distracting but still rather marvellous costumes and clothing - talking feathers and ruffles and sparkle. She wanted all eyes on her and her sky-high headdress.
In the 1920s and '30s, Baker's hair was most commonly seen gelled all the way down, with certain strands shellacked into curly-Qs on her forehead.
It was a look that was all her own, but since her death in 1975, designers and performers alike have taken notice.
On the Spring 2011 Prada runway and Marc Jacobs' Fall 2016runway, models walked down the catwalk with their hair slicked all the way down, and gelled into waves a la Baker.
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She adopted gender-free fashion more than 75 years before its time. Although her career had been built on an empire of feather headdresses and nipple-baring ensembles, Baker took a swing at gender-free fashion way back when.
Her style has been imitated by current day admirers from Beyonce to Tyra Banks.
And more than 75 years later, her legacy lives on in figures like designer Shayne Oliver.It also lives on in Jaden Smith, who is doing his part to normalize men in skirts.
But to bring it back to the ladies, since Baker slipped on a suit, women in the spotlight haven't shied away one bit, with figures as famous as Oprah
Winfrey and Angelina Jolie regularly wearing suits to high-profile events. As you can see now, Baker remains one of the most influential characters in history, whether it be in the worlds of comedy, dance, social activism or, most definitely, fashion.
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