An early review in a 1968 issue of Vogue raved about a “coiffed and spangled” Aretha Franklin singing “three gratuitous hits to warm up,” and then proceeding to sit down at her piano and “usher in the spirit of ecstasy.” An apt description of the Aretha who was emerging out of the church and a conservative early career singing the blues and jazz ala Dinah Washington. Refashioned as a pop singer when she made the switch from Columbia to Atlantic Records in the late sixties, Ms. Franklin took the opportunity to begin experimenting with her wardrobe choices right along with her music — and never looked back.
Beyond her glorious voice, we often forget the greatness of Ms. Franklin. Yes, we know she also plays the piano. But we forget that she is also a songwriter (“Think” and “Rock Steady”) and that she was accepted into the Juilliard School of music to study classical piano. We remember her recent, infamous near-wardrobe malfunctions, but we somehow skip over the fact that the designer of the hat she wore to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration could not handle all of the requests he got to duplicate it.
If Aretha’s music gave voice to the everyday “do right” Black woman, her style choices often showed you what she looked like when she dressed up: Afros, sometimes dyed red, to match flowing, custom-made gowns from Black designers like Stephen Burrows. An all-natural look sans, makeup, worn with a hand-sewn dashiki. Or a sleek press-and-curl to compliment glittering, beaded, low-cut stage gowns, like the one she wore in a 1970s advertisement for Fashion Fair cosmetics. Even when she seemingly goes “too far” by the standards of others, she ultimately seems pretty pleased with herself.
Nichelle Gainer is a beauty, fashion and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines and websites including GQ, InStyle, Glamour, Newsweek.com and Essence.com. She is currently working on the book version of Vintage Black Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter at @VintageBlkGlam