Welcome to February, gem gals! Did you know it’s Black History Month? I’ll be honest, I don’t see a lot of people of color in the jewelry industry, and that’s a shame. So this month, I wanted to start off with a historical style and trend-setter, fabulous entertainer, and one of my favorite women in history – Josephine Baker!
You may not have heard of Josephine, but let me assure you that in her time, she was the BOMB! She was American by birth, but because of the opportunities presented in France, she eventually became a French citizen.
Let’s start off with the one thing I hear about what made her so famous – her dancing!
Even though she was born into a poor family in St. Louis, Missouri, she got experience as an entertainer by touring with a group called The Jones Family Band & Dixie Steppers. At just 13, she was traveling around the US, performing comedy for their act.
After that ended, she became a chorus girl in a different production. Although they first tried to tell her she was “too skinny and too dark,” she eventually won them over with her gift for comedy. Onstage, she rolled her eyes and purposely acted clumsy. People loved her “act,” and she ended up was attracting big crowds for the rest of the show’s run.
Like every American who wants to make it big, Josephine went to New York City. And she had some success there. But she got the opportunity to be in a musical in France, so off she went Paris!
Success in France
Josephine was just 19 years old when she went to Paris in 1925. It was the Jazz Age, and musicals were all the rage. Everyone was dancing the Charleston. It was also a time when people were interested in African art and culture. People seemed bizarrely obsessed with the idea that black people would always have a primitive “African” nature. Josephine took these interests in mind and created the danse sauvage (literally, dance of the savage), which she performed at the famous Folies Bergère cabaret hall.
Honestly, looking at her dance now, it seems ridiculous and silly. She literally climbs down from a palm tree and dances around in a skirt with rubber bananas. But in its time, the dance became a huge hit! People thought Josephine was exotic, sexy, and talented! They called her the “Black Venus” and the “Black Pearl.” She became one of the most photographed women in the world. And in just two years, she was making more than any other entertainer in Europe.
Josephine, I’m sure, was thrilled to be an international sensation. And she thrived in Paris, which was not segregated like the United States was. Her success led to two movie roles in the early 1930’s where she portrayed singers (Zou-Zou and Princesse Tam-Tam). The money she made from them allowed her to buy a huge mansion in southwest France. She named it Les Milandres. You must have really reached the big time when you came name your own mansion! I mean, only rich and famous people do that!
Spying during the war
After all her fame and fortune in France, Josephine returned to perform in the United States in 1936. She was incredibly excited to return home. Unfortunately, her reviews were horrible, critics said her voice was thin. And she experienced awful racist treatment – TIME magazine referred to her as a “Negro wench.” That was enough America for her! She went back to France, got married, and became a French citizen in 1937.
Josephine’s independence as a performer meant she was able to move around freely in Nazi-occupied France. She was a spy for the French Resistance, smuggling secret messages written on her music sheets. Josephine also served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She earned awards from the French for her service, including the both the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour with the rosette of the Resistance, two of France’s highest military honors.
Josephine had an extensive wardrobe for her work on stage. She wore miniskirts, fringed dresses, feathers, fur stoles, elaborate headdresses, and shimmery glittery gowns. She literally had no fear when it came to fashion. On stage or off, she exuded style and confidence. And it showed with her hairstyles, clothes, and jewelry. She dressed in clothes from the most famous designers of the day – Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, Balenciaga, Chanel, and Dior. Josephine had expensive taste and spent much of her fortune on fashion, jewelry, luggage, and exotic pets. She even had a cheetah named Chiquita, who would wander with her throughout Paris on a leash. Chiquita, of course, had her own diamond encrusted collar.
Josephine knew how to capitalize on her influence. Everyone seemed to be obsessed with how she looked – they wanted to style their hair like she did. In her early performing days, she frequently gelled her hair down with certain sections fashioned into curls. No one else was doing this except Josephine. But people loved it, and copied her! Not one to miss out on an entrepreneurial opportunity, she created and sold Bakerfix, a hair pomade. And for those who wanted skin like Josephine had naturally, she sold Bakerskin, a lotion that made your skin darker.
Some of today’s biggest stars, like Rihanna and Beyonce, have cited Josephine Baker as an influence, in terms of both music and style. Josephine had so many great looks, it was hard for me to pick the ones I wanted to share with this post. So I created a fabulous Pinterest board, check it out here!
After the war, Josephine did what she could to be active in America’s Civil Rights movement. Josephine, unsurprisingly, was not a fan of segregation. After she and her husband were refused service at 36 different hotels on a trip to New York, she was furious. So she wrote articles, gave speeches, and performed, refusing to perform for segregated audiences. She inspired people, but upset the Ku Klux Klan, who did their part to threaten her. But she would not be intimidated. Working with the NAACP, she frequently and publicly said she was unafraid of the KKK. The NAACP thought so much of her work that they declared May 20 as “Josephine Baker Day”.
During the March on Washington in 1963, she was the only official female speaker listed alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She was 57 years old, and wearing her uniform from World War II, she gave an incredibly inspirational speech:
“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world. . . .
“I am not a young woman now, friends. My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light the fire in you.”
Her Rainbow Tribe
Josephine’s financial independence meant she never really needed a husband. But she was married four times. First there was Willie Wells, then American Willie Baker in 1921. She kept his last name for her professional career. She became a French citizen by marrying Jean Lion in 1937, but later married French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947. After that, she maintained a long time relationship with American artist Robert Brady, although they never married.
Josephine was never able to have children of her own. With her fourth husband, she eventually adopted 12 children, 10 boys and two girls, from around the world – Finland, Japan, France, Belgium, and Venezuela. It was her way of showing that people of different races and skin colors could live together harmoniously.
She referred to her children as “The Rainbow Tribe.” She invited people to come to her French mansion and visit the children. She wanted people to see how normal and happy it all was. Of course, it wasn’t really normal, but still…..
Josephine died at age 68 in 1975. More than 20,000 people filled the streets of Paris to watch her funeral procession. She was the first American woman buried with full French military honors, including the 21-gun salute.
Earlier that year, she had performed a medley of her work at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Before she even began, she received a standing ovation. The reviews she received for her final performances were the best of her 50 year career.
Want to get even more Josephine Baker? Check out HBO’s film about her that won five Emmys and one Golden Globe.
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