Freda Josephine (McDonald) Baker was a dancer, singer and actress who became a sensation in France in the 1920s. She was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture in 1927 with Siren of the Tropics. The photo of her wearing a rubber banana skirt costume and beaded necklace became an iconic image of the Jazz Age & Roaring Twenties. Beyonce paid tribute with her own version of this costume in 2006. She is a glam Art Deco style icon, named in Time magazine’s all-time 100 fashion icons.
Josephine had a difficult childhood, growing up in a poor neighbourhood in St.Louis and working as a domestic servant by age 8, living on the streets, earning money by street corner dancing and marrying at age 13. She divorced her first husband at age 14 and began work with a street performance band called the Jones Family Band. She married again at age 15 to William Baker, but left him too when her vaudeville group were booked into a New York City venue. She kept his last name. Her career began to flourish in New York and she eventually took a trip to Paris in 1925, where she became an instant success and decided to leave America behind.
She performed the ‘Danse Sauvage’ in 1926 wearing her first banana costume. The designer of the skirt is disputed but many sources credit Jean Cocteau or artist Paul Colin. Vogue says that “Thousands of dolls in banana skirts were sold all over Europe; beauty editors advised women to rub walnut oil on their faces to darken their skin like Baker’s; postcards, featuring Baker with a glossy, slicked-down hairstyle in her famous banana skirt with jewelry strategically placed over naked breasts, were widely distributed.”
Ernest Hemingway proclaimed that she was “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw”. She also became friends with Pablo Picasso and other members of café society. She was the most successful American performer working in Paris at the time and was firmly cemented into French culture by the time her song ‘J’ai deus amours’ came out in 1931.
She was often seen in the designs of Madeleine Vionnet and Paul Poiret off stage.
She transformed her image in the 1930s and while she remained popular in France, she still hadn’t achieved success in America. She married again in 1937, renounced her American citizenship and became a French national.
She worked as a French spy during WWII and was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur.
Her career continued to flourish after the war and in the early 1950s she finally won over American audiences, though she faced racial discrimination and was critical of segregation, becoming involved n the Civil Rights movement. Eventually her work visa was revoked on the grounds that she had communist leanings. One incident in the Stork nightclub in Manhattan lead Grace Kelly to to take her by the arm and storm out with her entire party, leading to a friendship between the two women.
She continued to perform into the 1970s (including at the Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973) right up until her death in 1975. She received full military honours at her funeral.
Chateau des Milandes, Baker’s home, is open to the public and displays her stage costumes including her banana skirt.
Writing on the 110th anniversary of her birth, Vogue described how her 1926 “Danse Sauvage" in her famous banana skirt "brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination" and "radically redefined notions of race and gender through style and performance in a way that continues to echo throughout fashion and music today, from Prada to Beyoncé."
Baker’s elaborate stage outfits have influenced female performers in the decades since, with comparisons being drawn to the style of Cher, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. Rihanna’s 2014 Swarovski crystal dress was an homage to Josephine’s provocative costumes.
“During her years in Paris, Baker invested heavily in a wardrobe of statuesque, richly embellished gowns and elegantly tailored suits, creating an image that she felt reflected her rightful standing as a grand dame of the culture. She bought from elite designers including Madeleine Vionnet and Pierre Balmain and became a personal friend of Christian Dior, photographed in the front row of a Dior catwalk show in 1959 next to Juliette Greco. In the 1960s, she wore Dior suits for appearances at the civil rights protests she championed back in her native US.” - The Guardian newspaper.
She was portrayed by Lynn Whitfield in the 1991 TV movie The Josephine Baker story. Two new limited series about her life are in the works with Irish actress Ruth Negga and American Musician Janelle Monáe set to portray her.