STL Fashion Archives: The Illustrious Style of Josephine Baker

By Rikki Byrd
In Style

There is much to be said about the abundantly talented Josephine Baker, who was born in 1906 in St. Louis as Freda Josephine McDonald. She got her first taste of the industry performing with local bands and later discovered her passion for the entertainment industry after relocating to New York City to sing in the chorus of the African-American musical “Shuffle Along.” Her claim to fame, however, would happen when she began performing in Paris, where she spent most of her time until her death in 1975.

Complementing her outstanding performances was her fearless style, which continues to be referenced in pop culture fashion moments today. She is most-noted for her “banana-skirt,” which she donned while dancing topless at the Folies-Bergeré in Paris. The skirt was later referenced in Prada’s Spring 2011 collection. Her look from her performance in the Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973 (which featured another St. Louis-native, Kay Thompson) can easily be compared to Beyonce’s 2015 Met Gala dress. And Rihanna’s look at the CFDA’s 2014 Fashion Awards went down in history, as her see-through crystal dress was compared a dozen times over to Baker’s costumes.

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Photo courtesy of Berg Fashion Library

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Photo courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library Digital Collections

In addition to her talent and style, Baker was also an activist participating in the fight for civil rights in the United States, as well as in the French Resistance during World War II. She also adopted children from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds that she called her “Rainbow Tribe.” She was awarded for many of her efforts, as well as her talent. In 1990 she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame on the Delmar Loop.

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