Before Gaga came and electrified the music world with her eccentric style and outrageous act, we had gone years without a monster to gasp over. Madonna’s constant re-invention has been fun, but a leotard and heels doesn’t conjure up any real shock. Pop and rock (except for extreme acts like ICP or Gwar) has been an arid desert of originality for years.
Way back in the mist of time, we had acts like Grace Jones. The Jamaican-born former model worked any stage she crossed, dressed in otherworldly outfits, writhing and waving her arms. From her first album cover where she posed greased and naked except for two black bands, she proceeded to revolutionize the ideas of gender and sexuality (tight and tailored men’s suits with razor cropped hair). Her deep bass voice in "Slave to the Rhythm" rang out as she emerged in an outfit painted by the late Keith Haring. Brilliant.
Elton John never failed to disappoint with every appearance. Feather boas and fantastically rhinestoned glasses combined with eye popping costumes raised the plain, balding piano man to the heights of stardom. "Crocodile Rocks 50’s tinged bop" may still have been a hit – but his panache and boldness made every song performance art. The homely, gap-toothed musician endeared himself to audiences across the world by being both musically mainstream and visually outrageous.
David Bowie’s androgynous beauty powered the fantasies of every human being in the 70’s. The enduring poster child of Glam Rock shone in metallic one-legged jumpsuits, impeccable make-up, and that rooster red coif (which even now superimposes itself onto collectibles and t-shirts) inspired legions of platform-heeled wannabes. Ziggy Stardust, his trippy pseudonym, was a perfectly realized blend of futuristic fashion and musical prowess. His legendary rise to fame and backstage decadence inspired the cinematic homage ‘Velvet Goldmine’.
In the 60’s when pop was as much about painting as music, we had such creatures as Candy Darling, Ultra Violet, and Viva. These legends informed the character of Leigh Bowery, a performance artist so major that he’s listed in The Fashion Book. Safety pins, latex, and aerosol can caps combined with imaginative clownlike make-up to create looks that haunt us still. One of my favorite photographs of Leigh involved multiple pairs of black plastic glasses arranged to simulate one pair falling across his head over time. You could see the wires holding the frames in place, but you didn’t care. The magic still worked.
The past is littered with the sequins, feathers, and greasepaint left behind by others who made us ready for the Gaga spectacle that we enjoy so boldly today. Cher, The Village People, Kiss, Labelle, hell – even Liberace (diamonds, furs, and a flamboyantly naughty sense of humor) edged us closer and closer to the acceptance that Lady Gaga has from us now.
Images courtesy of the Fashion Spot forums.