Aretha Franklin, the secret style icon
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 last 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.
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.
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.
Franklin came to be known as a diva.
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.