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Josephine Baker

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Josephine Baker’s iconic banana skirt costume, which made her a sensation in Paris when she appeared at the Folies Bergère in 1926.About

Josephine Baker became a sensation in 1925 when she arrived in Paris, dancing with La Revue Nègre and then with the Folies Bergère. Born Freda J. McDonald in St. Louis in 1906, she saw show business as a route out of poverty, and joined the chorus of several all-black musical revues, including Shuffle Along, before setting sail for Paris. With her electrifying dances and scandalously revealing costumes—most famously, she appeared topless in a skirt made of bananas—Baker became an icon of the Jazz Age in Europe, introducing African-American rhythms and dances, and inspiring many artists to depict her extraordinary body and style of movement. As a singer, dancer, and actress in several films made in the 1930s, she remained hugely popular in France, but when she performed in the United States, Baker faced racism and disapproval of the open sexuality in her performances. Dedicated to racial equality and social justice, she participated in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s, and adopted twelve children of different races whom she dubbed “the rainbow tribe.” Though she often struggled with financial difficulties, Josephine Baker remained a beloved performer, known for her comic spirit and charismatic personality, until her death in 1975. Her unique, self-created image and path-breaking career remain an inspiration.

Pictured left: Josephine Baker’s banana skirt costume, which became an instant icon in Paris when she appeared at the Folies Bergère in 1926. Dawn Lille writes, “Her beautiful body, her instinctive control of the stage, and her comfort with her sexuality attracted every eye in the audience and made this black woman an overnight American cultural sensation.”


Essay by Dawn Lille -- Selected resources

Princess Tam Tam poster, 1935Pictured left: Josephine Baker’s films, made in France, showcased her dancing, singing, and charismatic personality, but also cast her in exoticized roles that clearly segregated her from white actors. In the 1935 Princess Tam Tam, for instance, she plays a Bedouin girl who is brought to Paris by a writer who attempts to “civilize” her.

Josephine Baker



Pictured right: In 1936, Baker returned to the United States to appear in the Ziegfeld Follies, pictured here. She met with racism and critics’ disapproval of her open sexuality, and returned to live the rest of her life in France.