Shop Windows

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One day last winter, I noticed this interesting exhibit/display in the windows of Macy’s Department Store. These images grabbed me immediately: The drawings and posters of Josephine Baker as a fashion icon, and the mannequins, with their expressive hand gestures, and the colorful printed text, of (real? and) imagined “Baker-isms”

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“Maman” Josephine       Beyonce you can have my costume
No, I have no regrets   A certain smile!    Ah. Those Bananas!     Me, a diva?

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All of this imagery is meant to help us in “Rediscovering Josephine Baker” during Black History Month. We are also to meant to “discover” the great items on sale at Macy’s.

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Like Betsey Johnson Handbags on [Floor] 1.

What can we make of this as an archival practice? I think the use of images, original posters, and fashion drawings “on loan from the Jean Claude Baker Foundation and the Jean Rennert Collection,” is a traditional museum practice. But paired with the mannequins advertising the latest fashions on sale in the store, and the colorful fictional utterances, the Baker archive changes from a document of the past into an image of contemporary urban sophistication. But not without raising some disturbing issues…

The fictional text takes liberties (“Beyonce can have my constume”) in order to link the past and the contemporary (Baker and Beyonce) in an exuberant celebration of fashion. But linking these two American icons, especially during Black History Month, also reminds me how black women’s bodies have been casualties of the racial minefield.

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Josephine Baker, in her bananas, playing the role of colonial savage in hit French films like Princesse Tam Tam is uncritically celebrated in this poster in the window.

Watching Baker, in the role of Princesse Tam Tam, overcome by the “African” rhythms, stripping off her disguise of “Western” sophisticated evening wear and plunging onto the stage to the chagrin (and delight) of her French milieu, is both exhilerating and painful to watch. It is as though her elastic body is charged with expressing the repressed desires (the shame and pleasure) of the audience. As though her body is both hers and theirs at once.

When Beyonce reprises Baker’s classic banana costume in this 2006 performance, I can feel the same issues stirred up. What does is mean for black women’s bodies to be “used” in this manner?

The shop window display seems almost benign in comparison with the uses of Baker’s image in the 1920s and 30s. And Beyonce’s “innocent” reprise of the Baker act is also fun and entertaining. But somehow black ladies shaking ass in bananas for mostly white audiences is still pretty disconcerting.

Combining all of these issues almost seamlessly is part of the power of archival practice, I think. Inspired shop windows can definitely be archives of affective experience of the city. I am obviously affected ;-]

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