24 January 2023

Dior’s SS23 collection was heavily inspired by Josephine Baker – but who was the trailblazing Roaring Twenties icon?

The iconic American-born French entertainer became the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture in 1927.

Yesterday, Dior stunned at the Musée Rodin as the house unveiled their standout SS23 Haute Couture collection. In a room full of celebrities, including the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy and Yaz Shahidi, it was the collection’s muse, Josephine Baker, that rightfully stole the spotlight.

Baker, an American-born Black cabaret in 1920s Paris, famously used clothes as a tool to combat and transcend the racial stereotypes and gender roles that were all too prevalent during her time. Her jaw-dropping performance, cemented her celebrity status and led to her becoming the first ever Black woman to star in a major motion picture – 1927’s Siren of the Tropics. Josephine rivalled Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford as the most photographed woman in the world, and by 1927, she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. 

As her stardom grew, Baker became a couture client at Dior, and after making a triumphant return to America – where she previously toured with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919 – Jet magazine ran a cover line that famously boasted about her “$250,000 wardrobe.” She regularly purchased from designers held in the highest regard, including Madeleine Vionnet and Pierre Balmain and became a personal friend of Christian Dior, photographed in the front row of a Dior catwalk show in 1959.

And as a wartime resistance fighter and early civil rights activist, Baker took fashion seriously as a cultural force for change. In the 1960s, she wore Dior suits for appearances at the civil rights protests she championed back in her native US. In doing so, she echoed her contemporary Marlene Dietrich, who also earned her a spot alongside Baker on Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri’s board of season muses.

Many creations in Dior’s new collection are inspired by Baker as well as her cosy and intimate dressing room where she stayed before going on stage.“I like the idea of creating a collection that’s inspired by the ’20s, when cabaret dresses were sparkly and embroidered and glamorous, and mixing it with real life: the tailleur, the uniform,” Chiuri said in her show notes. “I’m a very pragmatic woman who likes clothes you can wear. Working with the feeling that comes from this reference, you can create something that works for today.” She took the elements of Baker’s heyday with fringed and metallic dresses, adding a modernistic touch by quieting down their glitter factor.

Dior’s collection was part of their most recent collaboration with American artist Mickalene Thomas, who installed 13 life-size portraits of Black women who broke down barriers in the art world, from Baker to Nina Simone and Lena Horne. Thomas described the Dior collaboration as “a conversation about the importance of Black female role models.”

“Baker is the perfect example of artists coming to France because they believed there is a culture here which protects and encourage freedom of expression. She became a French citizen, brought up her children in France, fought for the Resistance, and ended up in the Pantheon. What a life!” said Chiuri.

  • Writer Chris Saunders Banner Image Credit

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