Before Beyoncé and a host of other black artists hit the big time, Josephine Baker reigned supreme. But few young people know of the Missourian who rose from poverty to fame in the Roaring Twenties, a stunning feat for a black woman at the time. So a new exhibit near her longtime home in France hopes to reintroduce her.
Presented at the Salle Saint-Martin de Souillac until September 10, “Joséphine Baker, an extraordinary destiny” tells her story through 200 pieces, including her personal haute couture, photos and documents, and features the first museum dedicated to the stage and screen icon, outspoken activist and civil rights pioneer, who makes her debut here in 2025.
Baker has a moment. Last year she became the first black woman to be buried in the Pantheon in Paris. Janelle Monáe stars in A24’s upcoming series “De La Resistance,” whose co-executive producer Damien Lewis’ book “The Flame of Resistance: The Untold Story of Josephine Baker’s Secret War” was released in May.
“He is a figure of courage who speaks to people today,” said exhibition curator Florence Müller, who recently left her position as curator of textile art and fashion at the Foundation. Future of the Denver Art Museum for Independent Projects. “When I gave [actress] Yara Shahidi a tour of the Dior exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and we got to the part about the famous women he dressed, she said Baker was her inspiration.
Many pieces in the Baker exhibition come from the private collection of the exhibition’s artistic directors Nathalie Elmaleh and Laurent Teboul, one of the most important in the world according to Müller. They lent a silk velvet evening dress by Jean Patou, the oldest dress known to her. Since they only had the jacket from her 1951 Balmain suit which she wore several times on tour, notably in Japan, Balmain’s creative director, Olivier Rousteing, reproduced a new haute couture skirt based on a sketch by archives.
“He [Rousteing] identifies with her, because they have a lot in common. He is black, from a poor background and adopted – Baker adopted 12 children from many countries and all races who were known as his ‘rainbow tribe’,” Müller said.
Another Balmain ensemble with sequins and feathers dates from his 1964 performance at Carnegie Hall. Baker’s personal effects, like her cheetah Chiquita’s necklace, are complemented by looks from 20th-century designers she was fond of, such as Jeanne Lanvin and Paul Poiret. The Azzedine Alaïa Foundation and the Peter Lindbergh Foundation respectively lent dresses and photographs from an Italian Vogue shoot by Naomi Campbell in tribute to Baker.
“Naomi really pulled it off. Like Josephine, she has a statuesque body with elongated muscles and has posed nude and semi-nude extensively. They’re both proud of their bodies,” Müller said, of the comparison to Baker’s shocking performances at the ‘Revue Nègre’ in Paris in the 1920s. shocked people – many musical dancers were half-naked at the time. This was how she danced her ‘wild dance’. You see a freedom on stage.
The exhibition is also aimed at Baker the businesswoman. She had a knack for inventing and marketing products like leg cream, a precursor to self-tanners. It was a major transitional change in the beauty of women protecting their lily white skin with gloves and parasols.
“I can’t say 100%, but I believe she started the tanning trend and made dark skin look beautiful,” Müller said.
The historical element is the most moving. Baker chose a blue Dior suit for her namesake day of celebration in Harlem in 1951. She rode in a convertible during the procession and gave a civil rights speech during her lunch. Accompanied by a film of the event, the public can read his manuscript for the first time.
“It’s the Mona Lisa of the series. And to say it was 12 years before the March on Washington and she was a woman is just insane,” said Müller, who plans to unearth more gems ahead of the exhibit trip.