Dior: Defeating stereotypes, extolling Josephine Baker
Maria Grazia entitled her latest Christian Dior couture collection as 'Craft of Thought', in a dazzling collection inspired by Josephine Baker, fellow Black artists and the great moments of the Jazz Age.
Chiuri’s couture declaration consecrated Baker and women of color like her, who succeeded in smashing down stereotypical ideas of how Black artists were meant to behave, act and create by the dominant culture.
Like Baker, whose moments of greatest triumph happened in entre-deux-guerres Paris, the collection often referenced the 1920s. Though its take on flapper dresses, café society and female elegance all looked thoroughly contemporary.
Chiuri is such an assured couturier, operating at the height of her powers, that by using lightweight contemporary fabrics she reinvented the whole wardrobe of Baker and other great Black artists.
Staged Monday afternoon inside a giant tent in the garden of the Rodin Museum, the show was Dior’s latest collaboration with Mickalene Thomas. The American artist created a series of very large tableaux made in fabric and sequins of Baker, alongside the likes of singer Lena Horne; actress Dorothy Dandridge; Nina Simone, the emblematic singer and civil rights activist; Naomi Sims, the first Black woman to grace the cover of Life; and Eartha Kitt, the legendary singer, who began her career singing in the Boeuf sur le Toit in Paris. All artists who struggled successfully break down the many barriers against Black women in the different arts.
Referencing the black-and-white photography of the period, much of the collection was in those colors, along with the gold and silver in which Baker often performed. The first Black woman to star in a major motion picture, Baker performed at the Folies Bergère in Paris, becoming a defining star of the Jazz Age, or what the French refer to as Les Années Folles.
Opening the collection with risqué black satin swimsuit worn under a silk dressing gown, and finished black diamond stitch lapel; and continuing with silk velvet evening dressing coats; and hyper distinguished double-breasted coats. A good half of the clothes worn by models of color, many of them new arrivals to haute couture.
Chiuri remains the master of self-editing and her strict wool day dresses and pleated jackets with skirts finished mid-calf were models of stylish restraint.
However, the show really took off for evening – with elegantly crumpled and burnished radzimir silk cocktails; delightfully beaded ivory silk tops and skirts or multiple examples of semi-sheer and transparent looks. Not so surprising, since the best known image of Baker is of her on stage in a skirt made just of bananas, and top of multiple strands of pearls.
Everything in this Dior collection composed in modernist super-light fabrics, each impeccably made by Dior’s legendary couture atelier – like the stupendous metallic silver or burnish gold columns. One could easily imagine Baker, Dandridge or Kitt delighting in donning this clothes. As will Dior’s devoted clientele, when summer comes around.
“Josephine Baker was a remarkable woman. She came to Paris for the chance to express herself and was shocked when she first arrived by some of representations she saw in concerts of Black women. That’s why she was determined to break the stereotype of what people thought at the time,” explained Maria Grazia, in a pre-show interview.
Speaking before a mood board with atmospheric images of Baker in nightclubs, surrounded by tuxedo gallants in Paris bistros, or even dressed in a full black-tie outfit.
“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!” marveled Chiuri.
Picasso painted Baker; Cocteau raved about her; Hemingway, with whom she enjoyed a glass, called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Now, Chiuri has consecrated her as a unique couture muse.
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