Dior revives the spirit of Josephine Baker as a runway guiding light

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Forget the pearly skinned Princess Margaret posing proudly for Cecil Beaton on her 21st birthday. This season, Dior’s anointed princess is Josephine Baker, who commands the smoky jazz club stage draped in sequins, a white stole falling from her shoulders as she sings.

Baker, who was born in Missouri but lived most of her life in France, was Christian Dior’s muse and one of his best clients, spending $250,000 on a haute couture wardrobe. The latest Dior haute couture show, a dazzling homage of kisses and chic fringes, velvet tailoring and broken silk, restores Baker to her rightful place in Dior history. The show counterbalanced the heavily fetishized image of the infamous Folies Bergère costume—a string of bananas and little else—that defined Baker’s image.

Baker, who in 2021 became the first black woman to be inducted into the pantheon of prominent figures in French history, recognized for her work in the Resistance during the Second World War, “belongs at the center of Dior’s history,” said designer Maria Grazia Chiuri ahead of a show at the Musée Rodin. Chiuri first noticed how Baker was erased from its rightful place in the house’s history and iconography when the designer recreated one of Baker Dior’s original looks – a structured gown and matching gloves, but with a fur coat swapped for tulle to reflect a contemporary sensibility – for actor Yara Shahidi, who wanted to “pay homage to a powerful, renegade, black American artist” at the 2021 Met Gala in New York.

During her years in Paris, Baker invested heavily in a wardrobe of statuesque, ornate gowns and elegantly tailored suits, creating an image that she believed reflected her rightful position as a great lady of culture. She bought from elite designers including Madeleine Vionnet and Pierre Balmain and became a personal friend of Christian Dior, photographed front row at the 1959 Dior show alongside Juliette Greco. In the 1960s, she wore Dior suits to the civil rights protests she defended in her native United States.

Thirteen giant portraits of pioneering African American women, including Earthy Kitt and Nina Simone, by American artist Mickalene Thomas have been installed on the grounds of the Musée Rodin in Paris, emphasizing the message of reparation of representation. Thomas, whose paintings and collages reconfigured the art of Ingres and Manet by introducing black female bodies into the image, believes the visibility of the fashion industry means it’s an important space to address entrenched hierarchies of beauty. Thomas described the Dior collaboration as “a conversation about the importance of black role models.”

But because it was a high-profile Parisian runway show, there was another layer of news on the runway: what’s going to be in vogue next season. Crazy 1920s silk fringed dresses, slippery turtleneck cocktail dresses, velvet dancing open-toe sandals, gel hair and kisses look ready for the fashion pantheon.

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