Some style icons never go out of fashion, and Josephine Baker is one of them. Thanks to her chocolate-colored skin, Baker was a second-class citizen in her native America -- but on the stages of 1920s Paris, she became the toast of the continent, even receiving some 1,500 marriage proposals.
Today most people remember this performer for her dances at the Folies-Bergère, in which she wore nothing but a string of bananas draped around her famous hips. Yet much of her ongoing allure centers on how she transcended her role as a sex symbol in many ways.
For example, Baker served as a dedicated member of the French resistance during World War II: her undercover work apparently included smuggling secret messages written on her music sheets. The French government eventually awarded her the prestigious Chevalier of the Legion of Honor award for her hard work and dedication.
On another front, in the 1950s, she began to adopt children of different races, predating Angelina Jolie's international adoptive clan by decades. The result was a "rainbow tribe" to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers"; she would adopt twelve children in all, to whom she was known as the "Universal Mother."
Yet there seems to be ever more to learn about this extraordinary woman. Last week, one of Baker's adopted sons, Jean-Claude Baker, hosted a lavish dinner honoring his mother's birthday (she would have been 104 years old) at his landmark New York City restaurant, Chez Josephine. During a spirited toast, Monsieur Baker alluded to the fact that Josephine had been a seminal ambassador for some of France's most important - and struggling - design houses after the second World War: a now largely-forgotten fact.
After the dinner, I sat with Monsieur Baker under an enormous oil painting of the nude Josephine (those divine legs! those gorgeous breasts!), and he told me more about the important role Baker played in the world of post-war fashion.
Below, Jean-Claude Baker talks about how Josephine became a savior of the House of Dior, who really invented that deliciously scandalous string of bananas, and how she became a "guest editor" at Vogue (without the editors ever knowing it).
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Lesley Blume: You mentioned that Josephine Baker was one of the earliest ambassadors for French haute couture. Tell me more.
Jean-Claude Baker: Yes, she was, especially after the second World War. France was very poor; there was no money to promote French haute couture. Josephine was a very good friend of Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, and they loved to dress her. And when Josephine came back to American in 1949 - 50, she was wearing -- in a show, onstage -- those fabulous dresses. Americans were absolutely fascinated.
There came a very big book about Dior a few years ago, and that big Dior event at the Metropolitan - Princess Diana was there -- and I went to [the] Dior [people] and I said, 'You don't even have a dress of Josephine's, you don't even have a picture. You should be ashamed.' They told me that there had been a flood in the basement of the building and they had lost all of the materials.
So no one remembers now that Josephine was the one to revive French haute couture after the war.
LMMB: What happened to the clothing from the other designers?
JCB: Everything is gone because Josephine gave all the costumes to a transvestite. Those fabulous costumes are in some Fort Lauderdale drag queen place, or Paris or Hong Kong.
LMMB: Tell me a little bit about her most famous costume: the bananas.
JCB: Well, you cannot talk about Josephine without mentioning them. Jean Cocteau claimed that his lover made the costume, but it was actually made by [iconic designer] Paul Poiret's lover. Monsieur Christian was his name.
LMMB: You hinted that Josephine herself was a bit of a fashion designer.
JCB: When Josephine arrived in Paris, Paul Poiret invited her to a private [show]. The first model came out; not a word [from her]. The second model came; not a word. People were very shocked, saying 'Who does she think she is?' She said, 'Could I have a piece of paper and a pen?' Then she designed the dress and she added some fringes. Everybody was humiliated and Paul Poiret said, 'Thank you, Josephine. You are hired. This dress should have had two more row[s] of fringes. I will call this dress La Robe Josephine Baker.'
When she was traveling in America, from show to show by train, while the other girls were talking silly about boys or whatever, Josephine would look at Vogue magazine -- and all of the white fashion magazines -- and with a pencil, she would correct all of the drawings.
LMMB: What can women today learn from Josephine Baker?
JCB: If you believe in yourself, you can make whatever you want, dress however you want. Do not follow the trend. Follow your own inner voice. That's what Josephine did all her life. She showed up in Paris and cut her hair, almost like the French men who show their part on the side. The other chorus girls said, 'She has no self-proudness,' but Josephine said, 'Look, the people love it.' She was a trendsetter - and to be a trendsetter, you cannot be a little lamb. You have a break the rules.
On November 1, 2010, Chronicle Books will release a book by Lesley M. M. Blume based on her popular Huffington Post column about nostalgia. 'Let's Bring Back' will be a sophisticated, stylish cultural encyclopedia, celebrating forgotten objects, pastimes, and personae from bygone eras. Josephine Baker, Paul Poiret, Christian Dior, and many other luminaries of style make appearances throughout the book.