Since ‘the dress’ almost broke the internet and Madonna’s ‘Cape’ trended relentlessly on Twitter, I’ve been musing on style, fashion and how singers deal with the demands of ‘wardrobe for stage’.
Make no mistake, it’s tough to get it right, particularly in an age where everyone films or photographs you almost all the time. (Most of us will never be able to afford the kind of minders that Prince has, to ensure that no photographs are taken at his gigs!)
I picked up the phone to eight of my mates who all happen to be amazing vocalists. Each one has a distinctive voice that has led to numerous awards and appearances around the world. I wanted to know if their style was as idiosyncratic as their music? How they go about choosing what to wear for performances, what kind of things have they given up on and what to do when the only ‘dressing room’ is the ladies loos.
So here goes - from gig bags to corsetry, dresses to boots, here are some thoughts on fashion and style from some of my favourite singers:
Current Album: Hard Rain - The Songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen
Personal Gig Style: I like clothes that have shape and definition but don’t restrict me. I believe you should be as glamorous as you can be, with what you’ve got. I prefer colour on stage although from time to time I’ll wear black but with some great jewellery.
Tips: Wear clothes you can breathe and move in. I learnt a lot from Julian Clary, when I worked with him, about how the audience loves seeing a different outfit for the second half of the show. I always try to do that if I can. Shoes, actually feet, are crucial when you are singing so I don’t wear high heels, I used to but not anymore.
Thoughts on image: You’ve got to take on board that people have paid good money to not only hear you sing but also to ‘see’ you. You have to develop your own style whether it’s one that has echoes of the great jazz divas or a more contemporary style like that of Lea Delaria. It’s not necessarily about ‘glamour’, it has to be something that ties you, your sound, and what you are doing together. That’s part of the joy and fun of what we do.
Icons: Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf
Essential items/superstitions: The jewellery I wear everyday that I always wear at gigs, particularly rings, as they are very special to me. I always feel off kilter if I don’t have them on when performing.
Fashion Faux Pas: I once decided to wear a dress that I would normally wear with dark tights, without the tights as I had self tanned my legs. Never again, I felt really weird throughout the whole gig!
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Current Album: Where I Need To Be
Personal Gig Style: The clothes are a big part of the gig. I wear a lot of black, it’s accentuates features. I’ve always liked black. To me the long black dress with gloves has always seemed rather classy. Although having said that, I recently I bought a dark purple glittery dress! I also like shorter dresses, cinched in the waist, V cut & comfortable but flattering and I like wearing boots.
Tips: Always think of how the clothes will look in photographs from every angle.
Thoughts on image: Image control is very important, what one person might think is a good image of you, you might disagree with. Sometimes, things posted online can be detrimental to you as an artist, so it’s important you keep a close eye on things.
Icons: Julie London, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday
Essential items: Hair Curlers! It’s important to have the right jewellery for each particular outfit.
Fashion Faux Pas: I never wear loose fitting dresses on stage, they always make me look 20 pounds heavier.
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Current Album: If You Knew Her
Personal Gig Style: I like fitted dresses with a bit of sparkle on stage. I am increasingly getting into the retro/ vintage vibe as the clothes always seem a bit more glamorous. I like getting dressed up for gigs and it becomes especially important when you are doing TV etc. I do like a bit of a heel.
Tips: Try and remember what you wore at each gig. If you can’t remember, go on the internet and double check. There is nothing worse than wearing the same thing, to another gig at the same venue.
Thoughts on Image: I am currently changing my look, as I have a new album out. I don’t enjoy shopping, so I would would love to have a stylist. I currently am experimenting with different things, like a more understated style that can take me from day events to nighttime gigs. I have more stage clothes than everyday clothes. I have a curvaceous hour glass figure and am an average UK size. Despite that, I can’t always find clothes in my size and in my budget that look young and sexy. It’s my biggest bugbear, it’s always an issue.
Icons: Essential Items: Makeup /make-up brushes / jewellery
Fashion Faux pas: I love corsets, I perform in them occasionally, I can’t breathe in them but they look so good on! I am not sure if this is a faux pas but I have occasionally ignored the ‘breathing’ in preference for the look.
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Current Album: Songs From the Floating World
Personal Gig Style: I like to wear things that fit with the music that I am singing. I don’t follow fashion slavishly, you’ve got to wear things that suit you. For me it’s an hour-glass shape, that cling in the right places and I like heels on stage. The piece of clothing that I love most in all the world was given to me by Molly Parkin. It’s a jacket that is a cross between an Issey Miyake and a Fortuny.
Tips: If you are against a black backdrop, I think bold colours are essential. I also think a bit of sparkle helps people focus on you. I like a bling necklace ring and bracelet. Choose clothes that you feel at ease with.
Thoughts on Image: You have to have a strong concept of yourself, both in terms of sound and visually. Think of Miles Davis. Doing a gig is a chance to go out and play and inhabit worlds that you may not normally explore. There’s a lot of gender politics when it comes to image and I think the way you look affects people perceptions of you. I enjoy pulling the rug from under people and their perceptions. Despite the idea that women dress for women, I do think that you can appeal to both genders in different ways through your clothing.
Icons: Stevie Nicks, Molly Parkin, Miles Davis
Essential Items: Lipstick, I like a bit of bling, necklace ring and bracelet.
Fashion Faux Pas: Less of a faux pas than a slight discomfort, having to wear glasses on stage recently to as I’d had problems with my contact lenses.
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Current Album: Come Rain or Come Shine
Personal Gig Style: I like a simple, very classic style that is an extension of my personality. No garish dresses or ‘vamp’ styles.
Tips: Be careful with retro looks, make sure you don’t become a slave to the look.
Thoughts on Image: The cliche of a woman pouting at the mic is something we need to move away from. It’s important to distinguish yourself from the audience with your outfit but it shouldn’t mean compromising your feminist ideals, It’s already difficult enough for a woman on stage, not be be judged by her sexuality, but women probably do take more care of their appearance. I’m wary of using sexuality; it's not right for me, but if it’s your thing go ahead. The thing that has made a big difference to me was when 4 years ago I started to take my own photographs for my albums and publicity. That has been really liberating.
Icons: Anita O’Day, Sheila Jordan, Nancy Wilson
Essential Items: Red Lipstick, Eyeliner
Fashion Faux Pas: None that I can recall but you may have to ask others to tell me!
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Current Album: Soul Providence
Personal Gig Style: I’m a old school classic type of dresser, the evening type dresses, the elegant cocktail dresses. I have to wear things that allow me be free on stage and with stuff that won't fall off the clothes! I do like a heel but recently I had to stop wearing them, in fact I took off my heels during a gig at Ronnie's and went barefoot, so now I think I am going to go barefoot at many of my gigs. Boots are ok, they make them suitable for gowns nowadays. I mix and match quite a lot, I am quite small and used to have to shop in the kids department.
Tips: I don’t have patience for shopping but online shopping is great as it saves me time from having to go around shops. Also charity shops often have exclusive little pieces that you can’t get anywhere else. But even if you are buying a mass market item, customise it to make it yours.
Thoughts on Image: I work hard to constantly increase my audience and that does mean having to take image into consideration. The more intrigued potential audiences are by the visually the more likely they they are to want to know what you sound like. People pre-judge on a visual basis before they engage aurally. I think the older you get, the less of an issue image becomes. To a certain degree, people are less likely to ‘grade’ you on the way you look, but that doesn’t stop you grading yourself. Everything is still a pressure.
Icons: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson
Essential Items: 2 pairs of earrings and make up
Fashion Faux Pas: I have had too many! I often have to ask myself, ‘What was I thinking?'
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Current Album: The Road
Personal Gig Style: It’s taken me a long time to work out what looks good on me. I particularly love palazzo trousers and chiffon tops. I love flowing things, so I can wave around my arms and I love high heeled shoes, particularly wedges or Mary Janes.
Tips: Good control underwear and a good bra, trust me, that make’s all the difference especially in photographs! Try and be practical. Often as jazz singers the only place to change is in the toilets, it’s not all glamour.
Thoughts on Image: People do expect to see a show. I love it when all my band are in suits. It shows that we are ready to work. I think we’ve been in a really ageist phase in jazz over the past few years. But seeing people like Annie Lennox, Sheila Jordan, Jon Hendricks and Bob Dorough, all these greats that are still doing it and the more mature women getting roles in films has really encouraged me. I think things are slowly changing. On a different note, technology means that I you have to accept that sometimes people can take really unflattering pictures and post them online. I now ask audiences to feel free to take pictures/videos for their personal enjoyment but not to post the stuff they record on Youtube, etc.
Icons: Anita O’Day, Helen Merrill
Essential Items: I have to have on the rings that my mum, nan and sister gave me. They mean a lot to me.
Fashion Faux Pas: I’ve worn halter-necks which really don’t suit me and every time I see the photos I cringe.
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Current Album: Do It While You Can
Personal Gig Style: My style is very 1950’s Hollywood, I love the femininity of 1950’s fashion. I am a curvy girl and I wanted to find clothes that suited what I look like, ie with nipped-in waists. It was a process to find my style but I have settled on a style that I am comfortable with. I love corsets.
Tips: As a singer you have to be objective about what suits you. Many of us don’t have the luxury of a stylist. You have to be honest with yourself. Don’t ask your friend for their opinions, they are often too kind. If you wear a corset, make sure it’s laced right, like opera singers do, so you can breathe properly. Finally, if you are ever in Germany, it’s a great place to shop!
Thoughts on Image: Style is a constant learning process. We are still in the dark ages when it comes to clothes. I am constantly surprised by how little that the fashion industry caters for women of all shapes and sizes. I spent years trying on clothes in various shops never finding anything. Thankfully with the sponsorship Vivien of Holloway, I’ve found a place where I can literally go in and take things off the rack, without even trying them on, as I know they will fit me. I am accepting that my look can bracket me into a certain genre, but that is just me.
Icons: Mae west, Marlene Dietrich, The King and I, Lana Turner, Betty Page
Essential Items: I have a check list of things that I bring with me to a gig. I’ll always bring two or three dresses to change into during the show, shows, flowers for my hair, petticoats, jewellery etc. It’s like a Burlesque kit without the strip! I always have to bring a suitcase.
Fashion Faux Pas: Thinking that I am lot thinner than I am and wearing something that cuts you off in the middle, so you end up looking like a refrigerator!
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Jumoké Fashola (@JumokeFashola)
Current Album: The Condition of Being A Woman
Personal Gig Style: I love a head wrap, the bigger the better. Colour and fabric are also important to me. I have stacks of it at home. I like wearing long dresses, I love the way they swish around and I adore a high collar & a fabulous necklace. I sometimes have clothes tailored for me by Gisella Couture which is such a joy. I am thankful my mum taught me to knit, sew and crotchet so I change and adapt things if necessary.
Tips: Do some of your make-up before you arrive at the gig particularly if it looks like you may be changing in the loos. The lighting is always terrible!
Thoughts on Image: The key is to be who you are. We are expected to be individuals and at the same time expected to somehow conform. I think there is an unrelenting, unforgiving pressure on women to look a certain way. It’s impossible to please everyone. I’d rather look like me than try and be something I am not.
Icons: Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Diana Ross
Essential Items: Fabric, Eyeliner & lipstick
Fashion Faux Pas: Wearing black headwraps. They really don’t suit me.