Dior revives the spirit of Josephine Baker as its catwalk guiding light

<span>Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Forget about pearl-skinned Princess Margaret posing primly for Cecil Beaton on her 21st birthday with seven layers of ballroom-scale Dior taffeta resplendent around her. This season, Dior’s anointed princess is Josephine Baker, commanding the stage of a smoky jazz club draped in sequins, white fur stole falling from her shoulders as she sings.

Baker, who was born in Missouri but lived much of her life in France, was a muse to Christian Dior and one of his best customers, spending $250,000 on an haute couture wardrobe. The latest Dior haute couture show, a dazzling homage of kiss curls and swishy fringing, velvet tailoring and crushed silk lamé, restores Baker to her rightful place in Dior’s history. The show was a counterweight to the heavily fetishised image of an infamous Folies Bergère costume – a string of bananas and little else – which came to define Baker’s image.

Baker, who in 2021 became the first black woman to be inducted into the pantheon of distinguished figures in French history, recognised for her work with the resistance during the the second world war, “belongs at the centre of the history of Dior”, said designer Maria Grazia Chiuri before the show at the Musée Rodin. Chiuri first recognised how Baker had been erased from her rightful place in the history and iconography of the house when the designer recreated one of Baker’s original Dior looks – a structured gown and matching gloves, but with the fur cloak swapped for tulle to reflect modern sensibilities – for the actor Yara Shahidi, who wanted “to pay homage to a powerhouse 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, richly embellished gowns and elegantly tailored suits, creating an image that she felt reflected her rightful standing as a grand dame of the culture. She bought from elite designers 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 next to Juliette Greco. In the 1960s, she wore Dior suits for appearances at the civil rights protests she championed back in her native US.

Thirteen giant portraits of trailblazing African American women including Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone by the American artist Mickalene Thomas were installed in the grounds of the Musée Rodin in Paris, underlining a message of redressing representation. Thomas, whose paintings and collages have reconfigured the art of Ingres and Manet by introducing black female bodies into the picture, believes that the visibility of the fashion industry means it is an important space in which to address ingrained hierarchies of beauty. Thomas described the Dior collaboration as “a conversation about the importance of black female role models”.

But this being a high-profile Paris catwalk show, there was another layer of messaging on the catwalk: what will be in fashion next season. Roaring 20s silk-fringed dresses, slippery cowl-necked cocktail gowns, peep-toed velvet dancing sandals, gel-waved hair and kiss curls look ready for the fashion pantheon.