• [Baker, Josephine. (1906–1975)] Banana Belt, worn at the Casino de Paris, ca. 1930

[Baker, Josephine. (1906–1975)] Banana Belt, worn at the Casino de Paris, ca. 1930

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[Baker, Josephine. (1906–1975)]
Banana Belt, worn at the Casino de Paris, ca. 1930

Banana belt circa 1930-1950 with gold sequins on the side, from the collection of Josephine Baker and worn by her at the Casino de Paris. Former ORTF, SFP Collection. One of the most iconic items in performance history. 

Baker was most noted as a singer, while in her early career she was a celebrated dancer. She was given the nicknames the "Black Venus" or the "Black Pearl", as well as the "Créole Goddess" in anglophone nations, while in France she has always been known in the old theatrical tradition as "La Baker." Around 1930, she "began a long and successful collaboration with the Casino de Paris. The Casino was not as famous as the Folies Bergère, but it was still a first-class music hall. Its seasonal productions were extremely lavish, and in no time, Baker re-established herself as the leading star of the Parisian stage." (Alan Schroeder, "Josephine Baker: Entertainer," p. 48)

The Office de radiodiffusion-télévision française (ORTF; lit. 'French Broadcasting and Television Office'), was the national agency charged, between 1964 and 1975, with providing public radio and television in France. When ORTF was divided into 7 smaller organizations, the SFP (Société Française de Production) took control of some of the archives. 

"The image of a dancing Josephine Baker, clad in pasties and a skirt made from replica bananas, is something of a cultural icon. However, today, the skirt’s meaning is very different than when Baker first wore it in 1926. Baker donned the revealing–and according to certain early 1900s moralists, ‘degrading’–skirt when she was still making a name for herself on the international stage. Her performances in the skirt soon gained her fame and fortune that she then used to fight Nazis in France and structural racism in America. As a performer, Baker used her sexuality and hyper awareness of image to manipulate her audience’s sexist and racist fantasies, and deployed them to build a platform for herself to dismantle the very social systems and cultural beliefs that they stemmed from.

Baker’s La Danse Sauvage quickly made her the star of La Revue Nègre. She appeared almost naked, clad mostly in feathers, swinging her hips as her equally exposed partner Joe Alex beat a drum. With rhythmic thrusts and sensual sways, Baker’s movements embodied the sexual language anthropologists projected onto nonwhite bodies. Her audience loved it. “In the short pas de deux of the savages, which came as the finale of the Revue Nègre, there was a wild splendor and magnificent animality,” performance attendee and dance critic André Levinson said. “The plastic sense of a race of sculptors came to life and the frenzy of African Eros swept over the audience. It was no longer a grotesque dancing girl that stood before them, but the black Venus that haunted Baudelaire.”

Only a year later, the dancer donned her famous banana skirt for Folies-Bergére’s civility/primitivism-themed La Folie du Jour. Sixteen rubber bananas hung from a low-slung belt around the dancer’s waist. Along with matching pearl necklaces and jewels, the iconic costume brilliantly appeased and critiqued her audience’s most lurid fantasies. The skirt’s phallic appendages evoked France’s colonial involvement in both the rubber and banana trades. It seemed to present Baker as a colonial sex object, but in doing so highlighted the exploitative nature of the economic and political orders that made her one. Plus, the allegory-loaded skirt’s silhouette subverted ballet’s proper tutu.

Baker was not the only performer on the nightclub circuit to perform African-inspired dances or wear revealing clothing, but she possessed a unique understanding of the racial and power dynamics underlying Paris’ obsession with jazz. She was “a creature neither infrahuman nor superhuman but somehow both,” American poet E.E. Cummings wrote. “A mysterious unkillable Something, equally nonprimitive and uncivilized, or beyond time in the sense that emotion is beyond arithmetic.” Baker embodied an ever-changing character that audience members like Cummings hoped to simultaneously dominate, tame, and embody. " (Courtney DeLong, CR Fashion Book, "Remembering Josephine Baker's Cultural Impact, Banana Skirt, and Beyond")