Aretha Franklin Reigned as Queen, in Voice and in Image

Aretha Franklin performing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1993.

There are so many refractory facets to consider in the life of the vocal genius Marianne Faithfull once characterized as “the voice of God” that talking about Aretha Franklin’s fashion sense feels a bit like speaking of Benjamin Franklin’s knack for flying a kite.

Yet a performer who left an indelible emotional imprint on generations of fans cannot be ignored as a maestro of image, a woman who practically from the start of a six-decade career understood not merely the potency of her magnificent voice but also the importance of how the public saw her.

Image
Credit...Metronome/Getty Images

If at the start of her storied career Ms. Franklin pliantly allowed herself to be groomed and promoted as a gospel ingénue with a set of pipes capable of blowing off the church doors, it was not long into her ascent that she began marshaling the power her nascent stardom commanded to extend the parameters of how we understood and defined black beauty.

[Read more about the life and work of Aretha Franklin here.]

Emerging in an era of bewigged and sequined girl groups whose vocal gifts sometimes took a back seat to their choreography and grooming, Ms. Franklin in her early years was predictably straight-jacketed in performance by demure day dresses or satin evening sheaths, her straightened hair dressed in a bangs and an elaborate beehive. Unapologetically black at a time when skin-bleaching creams were extensively marketed to women of color, she never possessed what, in the ugly terminology of the time, was called “good hair.”

Yet surprisingly soon into stardom Ms. Franklin began to shed these constrictions to grasp hold of an image that reflected her new realities as an increasingly prosperous businesswoman and, equally, as that rare performer audacious enough to wade into the tumultuous politics of the 1960s. Merely tracking Aretha’s coiffures might keep scholars of black identity as told through hair busy for decades.

As her involvement in the civil rights movement grew, Ms Franklin’s straightened and coifed styles steadily softened, a modest skull-hugging natural becoming a pillowy Afro by the time, in 1970, that she offered to post a $250,000 bond to free Angela Davis, the demonized black activist then being held on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping and murder (charges of which she was later acquitted). Quoted in Jet magazine at the time, Ms. Franklin said: “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free.”

It is easy to forget how far from the case that was in an era when Ms. Franklin’s Grammy-winning albums were still sold in segregated “race music” sections of record stores and when even the suggestion that a black woman might one day appear on the cover of September Vogue, as Beyoncé now does, would have seemed like a pipe dream. It is important, too, to note that wearing an Afro or the head wraps Ms. Franklin was early to adopt was once as risky a political statement as taking a knee would later become.

What seems surprising is that the vocal authority that was so naturally Ms. Franklin’s barely reflected the naturally reticent person that, by many accounts, she was. Yoking her astonishing vocal powers to a cannily evolving image, she would engineer her own transformation into a cultural presence so commanding that, by the time she sang My Country ’Tis of Thee,” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony (in a sedate charcoal wool coat and toque with a rotor-size bow) Ms. Franklin seemed no less an institution than the monuments around her.

And while many of her musical contemporaries ventured only rarely from their sartorial safe zones, Ms. Franklin remained boldly and exuberantly unconstrained in her tastes, confident about demonstrating both her individuality and her economic might by doing as another powerful black woman, Oprah Winfrey, one day would. That is, she dressed in a manner that made it clear she had only one person to please: herself.

It helped that Ms. Franklin was always an exuberant consumer. She was alternately capable of appearing to be a picture of probity, a sable-draped voluptuary, a faddist nut job (for a classic 1976 edition of “Soul Train,” a buxom Franklin performed her single “Jump” dressed in a Creamsicle-colored fringed mesh poncho with an observable lack of supporting undergarments) or one of nature’s born royals.

She was, after all, the Queen of Soul. And just as another famous monarch does, Ms. Franklin seldom went anywhere — onstage or off — without her handbag.

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