Josephine Baker may be as famous for what she didn’t wear as for what she did. The inimitable Depression-era performer rose up from a deprived childhood in St. Louis and made her way to New York at the pinnacle of the Harlem Renaissance to perform as a chorus girl, then crossed the pond to Paris. It was there, where her skin color was celebrated rather than maligned, that her legend was born.
Baker’s scantily-clad dances—she wore little more than a few strings of pearls, giant chandelier earrings and a “skirt” of bananas slung around her hips—at the Follies Bergère were the toast of the town. So much so that Ernest Hemingway named her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Besides shimmying her way into the hearts of many, Baker also contributed her efforts to the French resistance movement during World War II. And way before Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were adopting children from the world over, Baker was assembling her self-proclaimed “rainbow tribe”, a dozen children of different races.
Always pushing boundaries, Baker’s signature style was, in a word, sensational: feathers, headdresses, sparkling jewelry galore, and ensembles of the skin-baring variety.