Baker, Josephine

She was an exotic entertainer (a singer, a dancer, an actress), an activist and even a spy.

Baker dancing the Charleston, 1926
Baker dancing the Charleston, 1926.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald on July 3, 1906, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.

Her parents were poor performers and raised Josephine in a neighborhood that housed many vaudeville theaters, which functioned as movie houses, exposing her to showbiz from an early age. She had a poor childhood, and despite having only attended school until fifth grade, she developed street intelligence.

From a very young age, Baker had to work to help her family. At the age of eight, she took her first job as a helper to a white family. She worked as a waitress and even lived on the street until, at age thirteen, she married Willie Wells, a marriage that lasted only a year.

In 1921, at the age of fifteen, Baker married a second time, this time to Willie Baker. Around this time, she began to pursue the life of an artist. She went to New York with the theatrical troupe she was a part of and managed to get recruited for a Broadway show.

In 1925, she divorced again, and became known as “Josephine Baker”. Also that same year, she moved to Paris, where she began to gain success.

Her exotic dancing and the fact that she used to appear naked on stage made her known everywhere. She worked in various shows and performed at venues such as the Folies Bergère cabaret and the Casino Paris.

Drawn by Louis Gaudain; Josephine Baker and Chiquita, the pet cheetah.

At that time, she used to perform on stage with her pet cheetah called Chiquita.

In the mid-1930s, she then returned to New York and tried a career on Broadway, but did not have the same success as she had in Paris.

So she decided to return to Paris and, in 1937, married, for the third time, to Jean Lion and became a French citizen.

In 1939, when World War II was declared, Baker was recruited by the “Deuxième Bureau”, the French military intelligence, as an “honour correspondent”. Baker collected information about German troops from officials she knew at parties.

She divorced in 1940 and married for the last time, the fourth, in 1947, to French composer Jo Bouillon. The marriage lasted 14 years and in 1961 they divorced.

Despite living in Paris, Josephine was one of the personalities who became involved in American activism during the 1960s.

Josephine Baker in her banana costume.
Josephine Baker in her banana costume.

She was responsible for popularizing black-skinned artists in the society of the time. And in fashion, she is best known for her career in the 1920s, when she spread the use of beaded necklaces, chokers, bracelets, anklets, brightly colored gloves, fringes and colorful clothing.

She used to appear naked on stage or wearing something like a feather petticoat or, her most famous “look”, the artificial banana belt.

She is known as an icon of the 1920s jazz era and died in 1975.

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Bibliography: Callan, Georgina O’Hara; Enciclopédia da moda de 1840 à década de 90 / Georgina O’Hara Callan ; verbetes brasileiros Cynthia Garcia : tradução Glória Maria de Mello Carvalho, Maria Ignez França – São Paulo : Companhia das Letras, 2007.

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