Before Beyoncé and a host of other Black entertainers to hit the big time, Josephine Baker reigned supreme. But not many young people know about the Missourian who rose from poverty to fame in the Roaring ’20s, a staggering accomplishment for a Black woman at the time. So a new exhibit near her longtime home in France hopes to reintroduce her.
On view at Salle Saint-Martin in Souillac through Sept. 10, “Joséphine Baker, an extraordinary destiny” tells her story through 200 pieces, including her personal haute couture, photos and documents, as well as sets the stage for the first museum dedicated to the stage and screen icon, outspoken activist and civil rights pioneer, which debuts here in 2025.
Baker is having a moment. Last year she became the first Black woman to be entombed in Paris’ Panthéon. Janelle Monáe stars as her 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 published in May.
“She’s a figure of courage who speaks to today’s people,” said exhibition curator Florence Müller, who recently departed her post as Denver Art Museum’s Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Fashion for independent projects. “When I gave [actress] Yara Shahidi a tour of the Dior exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and we arrived at the portion about famous women he dressed, she said Baker was her inspiration.”
Many of the Baker exhibit’s pieces come from the private collection of exhibition artistic directors Nathalie Elmaleh and Laurent Teboul, one of the largest worldwide according to Müller. They loaned a silk velvet evening gown by Jean Patou, the oldest known existing dress of hers. Since they only had the jacket for her 1951 Balmain suit that she wore several times on tour, including to Japan, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing replicated a new haute couture skirt based on an archival sketch.
“He [Rousteing] identifies with her, since they have much in common. He’s Black, from a poor background and is adopted — Baker adopted 12 children from many countries and all races who were known as her ‘rainbow tribe,’” said Müller.
Another Balmain ensemble with sequins and feathers dates to her 1964 performance at Carnegie Hall. Baker’s personal belongings, like her pet cheetah Chiquita’s collar, are complemented by looks from 20th-century designers she favored, such as Jeanne Lanvin and Paul Poiret. The Azzedine Alaïa Foundation and the Peter Lindbergh Foundation respectively loaned dresses and photographs from an Italian Vogue shoot of Naomi Campbell hamming it up as an homage to Baker.
“Naomi really nailed it. Like Josephine, she has a sculptural body with elongated muscles and has posed a lot nude and half-nude. They are both proud of their bodies,” said Müller, of the comparison to Baker’s shocking performances during the “Revue Nègre” in Paris in the ’20s. “But it wasn’t the nudity that shocked people — many musical dancers were half-naked then. It was the way she danced her ‘danse sauvage.’ You see a freedom on stage.”
The exhibit also addresses Baker the businesswoman. She had a knack for inventing and marketing products like leg cream, a precursor for self-tanners. It was a major transitional shift in beauty from women protecting their lily-white skin with gloves and parasols.
“I can’t say 100 percent, but I believe she started the tanning trend and made brown skin beautiful,” said Müller.
The historical element is most moving. Baker chose a blue Dior suit for her namesake celebratory day in Harlem in 1951. She rode in a convertible during the procession and gave a civil rights speech at her luncheon. Along with a film of the event, the public can read her manuscript for the first time.
“It’s the Mona Lisa of the show. And to think that it was 12 years before the March on Washington and that she was a woman is just crazy,” said Müller, who plans to unearth more gems in anticipation that the exhibit will travel.