No one could drop a fur like Aretha Franklin.
When she was performing, she didn’t slither out of her mink or her chinchilla as though she was doing a flirtatious little striptease for her audience’s pleasure. Instead, she discarded her fur coats as though she was shedding bothersome earthly shackles in order to commune directly with the Holy Spirit. The coat drop was a signal that Franklin, who died Thursday at 76, was ready to loose her full vocal power in a transformative sermon of gospel, soul and rhythm and blues.
That voice was more lush and valuable than the coat. Still, she did not want to sweat out her coat. She threw it off. The coat was dismissed.
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When she sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center, she strode on stage in her cocoa-colored lace evening gown and full-length fur coat, clutching a sparkling handbag. She sat at the piano and began to sing, and as she reached the song’s crescendo, she stood, took off her coat and let it slide to the floor in a glamorous reveal. And she sang about how she felt like “a woman, a woman, a woman.” The emotion in her voices summoned up passion and pain, history and the now. She was declaring herself worth loving, in need of love.
“Ain’t I a woman?” asked Sojourner Truth. Yes, you are, Franklin responded. And so am I. The furs were not a costume worn for dramatic effect. Well, not solely. Franklin had earned them, and they were worn with pride and pleasure and in spite of all PETA’s begging and bullying. So, so many furs. Worn against the cold and worn in the face of adversity. Worn with hauteur. Worn because she was a star, and furs are what stars wear.
Franklin was not a fashion trendsetter or a style icon. She wasn’t pinup pretty. Nonetheless, when it came to owning one’s public image, she was ahead of her time even as she was exempt from it. She was body-positive, race-proud, I-wear-what-I-want cool, long before a generation of influencers and bloggers and whatever-wave feminists started proclaiming themselves “curvy” or “fat” or “real women” as a form of social activism. Franklin was the original plus-size provocateur.
She was simply herself. And, in being Aretha Franklin, she was a woman who used clothes to define her public persona, to delight her eyes, to bolster her confidence and to announce to the world that, of one thing she was certain: She was worthy.
Her style reflected the times in which she lived and her point-of-view as a performer. Both shifted from church girl with politely curled hair wearing shift dresses to a woman with an Afro delivering a full-throated demand for respect. There were the pop years with the blown-out baby Afro and the tube tops. And then she was the dowager national treasure in floor-length gowns — sometimes strapless, almost always sleeveless. The cleavage was writ large. The hips were full. The arms heavy.
And what exactly did you have to say about it? What did one dare say? Early on, anyone with the audacity to question her fashion sense was put in their place — not via Twitter, Facebook or email, but Western Union. Franklin clapped back by telegram. She could be old-school that way.
Franklin goaded her audience into suggesting that her style choices might have been better suited to a slimmer woman, a younger woman, a different woman. More than a few personal shoppers in her hometown of Detroit have noted that Franklin could be an exasperating contrarian on the subject of fashion. If she was advised, for example, that purple was not her color, that purple was, in fact, the only color that didn’t flatter her, one could be sure that for her next public appearance she would swaddle herself in glittering purple. How dare anyone tell Miss Franklin how to look, how to be. People were always telling women, particularly black women, what was off-limits. Franklin would define herself. Thanks, but no thanks.
All of today’s young rebellious souls who believe they are standing up to the tyrants of fashion, be advised: Franklin stood her ground long ago. You stand on ground she began clearing decades earlier.
Much of Franklin’s aesthetic sensibility was based on a marvelous fusion of secular fashion and churchgoing pomp — the dignified civil rights marcher meets juke-joint rebel. To walk into a black church on Sunday morning, particularly during the previous century, was to see congregants giving glory to God with their finery. Church was a place to unfurl the plumage that was hidden during the week. It was a day of magnificent hats, Easter egg-colored suits and, of course, furs. It was glamorous propriety kneeling at the altar for prayer. Franklin brought the Sunday morning fashion parade to the concert stage, to inaugurations, the red carpet, to the White House.
Franklin came to be known as a diva. But that implies a demand for something that is, perhaps, not fully earned. It’s a need to be the center of attention — an unseemly, offensive neediness. Like any performer, Franklin may have longed for the spotlight to satisfy her professional desires, but her needs were surpassed by what she gave. She shared the ecstasy of spirituality and brought womanly swagger to soul music. Her physical presence, with its imperfections and determined grandiosity, embodied our collective history — the strange fruit, bitter pills, the promise of a sweet land of milk and honey.
Watching Franklin toss her furs to the ground was a glorious sight. It was not as mesmerizing as hearing her roar about self-respect, unleash the soul of a natural woman or summon the sound of a chorus of angels. But seeing those fancy coats slide to the floor was more than bearing witness to a fashion gesture. It was more resonant than a diva move.
It meant watching a black woman declare her talent, her presence, herself as valuable and special. The message seemed to be that all this expensive stuff is nice — but if you think it can adequately compensate Franklin for everything or anything … think again.