Tuesday, June 25, 2013

R&R Hall of Fame: Female Fashion in the Music Industry

~Janis Joplin's 1965 Porsche 356c Cabriolet~
Last week, my husband and I took a trip to Cleveland, Ohio and visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While Jerry was scrutinizing a Les Paul prototype, drooling over Joey Kramer's drum kit, and schooling me throughout our visit on the various types of guitar pick-ups, bridges, and design elements, I was chasing fashion, camera poised and ready to shoot! 

~Supremes (1969, designer Bob Mackie)~
From the Hollywood and rockabilly styles of the 1950's and '60s girl groups (Supremes, Patsy Cline), to the gypsy glam fashions of '70s female rockers (Stevie Nicks, Heart), to the industrial, baby-doll, and boy looks of the 1980's musicians (Siousie Sioux, Madonna, Joan Jett), to the eccentric, slut glam, and vamp looks of the new millennium artists (Gaga, Beyonce, Amy Lee), female fashion within the music industry has always defined what is sexy, what is youthful, and what is trending within Western pop culture. Female artists, as they have expressed themselves through their music and dress, have historically shaped and reshaped the female identity - or at least they have tried. 

Recently, the music industry's relentless double standard regarding the female artist's image has come under fire. Women in the industry are very often objectified, their beauty scrutinized, and their musical talents under valued in favor of a more idealized (or rather marketable) image. Of course, this is nothing new. When Cass Elliot died in 1974, the news media quickly spread that she had choked on a ham sandwich while eating in bed, when in fact she has died of a heart attack. Throughout her life and music career, Elliot had struggled with her weight, often crash dieting, which likely weakened her heart - she died at 32. It was the same for Ann Wilson (Heart), who equally struggled with her weight and often starved herself to stay thin. In the mid-1980s, when Heart made their comeback, the band was not at the center of the media's attention, but rather Ann Wilson's significant weight gain. Capitol music executives were afraid that Wilson's obesity would damage Hearts' sexy and sultry image, especially since it was the age of MTV and video often killed the radio star. When music videos for Heart were filmed, Wilson was shot at alternative angles to disguise her weight. 

~Cass Elliot (1969, gifted by Michelle Phillips)~
Certainly, image discrimination didn't stop with Anne Wilson. Today, we hear the likes of Christina Aguilera, Adele, and Mariah Carey justify the state of their bodies (their physical image, as if it needs justifying) by telling the world over that they love their curves (May I ask who they are addressing? Because, when I look at these women, the furthest thing from my mind is their hip to waist ratio!). Ahhh, the anti-female side of the media and music industries strikes again! Hello, F-atty!

In contrast, who in the entertainment industry ever cared to wage an image campaign against John Popper (in his early days with the Blues Travelers) or Meat Loaf (Marvin Aday), both who are as grossly obese as Elliot and Wilson? No one. In fact, when Popper suffered a heart attack in 1999 and underwent gastric bypass surgery shorty after, he received from the media nothing short of praise and accolades for his brave life change. And what about Meat Loaf, who's still a pretty BIG fella? Not a foul word from the media or music industries about his physical largess. But then again, Marvin Aday is no Lady Gaga, so his weight is of little consequence to his image. 

~Stevie Nicks (1980-81; designer Margi Kent)~
Despite these prejudices in the industry, and certainly not to make light or to diminish their seriousness, female artists have, for the most part, garnered control of their image since the mid-1960s to reflect their musical and personal style. Gone are the days of the wholesome and adolescent characteristics of the girl groups; and, while the days of studio contrived identities are far from gone (Spice Girls), they're more common among boy pop bands (Backstreet Boys, Menudo) than independent female artists from other music genres. Western culture is historically pro-male despite the women's liberation movement and affirmative action; and where women make up more than 50% of the labor force, most industries are still male dominated, including (and especially) the media and music industries. And here, image is everything to the people who run the show.

But don't lose heart - fashion has always been a fairly accurate predictor of women's liberation, politically and socially; and in recent history, music, arguably more than any other medium, has shaped our personal and cultural identity, in how we think, in how we feel, in how we act, and in how we dress. In other words, music is the front man for social change...

So, rock on, sisters! Blessings and happy sewing! 

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