Musical muses: Five iconic singers whose style hit all the right notes

Their songs are timeless and so are their fashion choices, be inspired ...

04 April 2021 - 00:01
By Thango Ntwasa and Sahil Harilal
Nina Simone (left), and Valentino on the runway (right).
Image: Getty Images Nina Simone (left), and Valentino on the runway (right).


The iconic sound: With her classical training and sultry voice, Simone earned notoriety as an artist who could cover other musicians' songs with a breathtakingly unique approach. But even with her own music, the singer, songwriter, musician, arranger and civil rights activist was an emotional performer whose impact inspired many artists, including Elton John and The Beatles. Her style of singing and composing redefined how jazz could be done, with critics baffled at the manner in which she elevated the genre.

The iconic look: Choosing to not conform to the restrictive styles expected of women of her time, Simone took a bold stance in crafting her own image. Her style was the perfect balance between her onstage glamour and at-home casual looks. When she was not opting for bold African prints, Simone sported earthy tones brought up a notch with intricate details and embellishments.


The iconic sound: After surviving the tumultuous times of America during World War 1, Josephine Baker burst onto the scene in the 1920s as a dancing sensation. She moved to Paris at the height of her career — a move that would prove fruitful, as Parisians were famed for fetishising black culture at the time. In the 1930s she pursued an acting career and branched out as a singer. In World War 2 she became a spy for the French Resistance, using her celebrity to gain access to high-ranking Axis officials.

Josephine Baker (left), and Alberta Ferretti on the runway (right).
Image: Getty Images/Hulton Archive Josephine Baker (left), and Alberta Ferretti on the runway (right).

The iconic look: While the banana skirt is Baker's most iconic outfit, she also had a more sultry side that saw her become one of the biggest sex symbols of her time. With her iconic sleek hair, she always opted for slinky looks in soft tones and seductive silks. She often looked to striking accessories, such as chandelier drop earrings, to give her femme fatale looks a bit of glamour.


The iconic sound: The eclectic sounds of Blondie put the alluring Debbie Harry at the epicentre of the entertainment industry. Her daring love for music saw her write, with bandmate Chris Stein, some of Blondie's biggest hits, such as Heart of Glass and Rapture. She also experimented with different sounds and helped usher hip-hop into the mainstream when she became one of the first artists to embrace the sound —
to the point where she and Stein co-produced the soundtrack to the 1982 hip-hop film Wild Style.

Debbie Harry (left), and Max Mara on the runway (right).
Image: Rogers/Daily Express and Getty Images/Hulton Archive Debbie Harry (left), and Max Mara on the runway (right).

The iconic look: Famed for her crazy antics and wild nights out in the city, Harry was a quintessential rock star who made as many headlines as she did fashion moments. Her alternative-girl look paved the way for a fresh new approach for women in rock that did away with pops of neon and bright colours. With her approach to "tough girl chic", Harry's style captured glam rock through combat boots and fishnets that have evolved into more elegant options like designer thigh-highs and stockings.


The iconic sound: With few black singers able to push boundaries in music, Motown Records became a haven that would help cultivate many unforgettable talents. One particular group that would come out of it as icons were The Supremes, who have been credited as pioneers of 1980s funk, disco and R&B. Through their music, The Supremes were instrumental in breaking down perceptions of race at a time when segregation was rife and social injustice was at a high.

Diana Ross & The Supremes (left), and Jonathan Simkhai on the runway (right).
Image: Getty Images/Evening Standard Diana Ross & The Supremes (left), and Jonathan Simkhai on the runway (right).

The iconic look: Often credited for Motown glamour, The Supremes' chic wigs, glittering gowns and dolled-up looks were defining elements for other girl bands of the time. Adding to the sparkle that dominated their looks, the intricate details of their garments put costume designers such as Michael Travis in the spotlight.


The iconic sound: To best understand Cher's influence, one can look at the Broadway musical The Cher Show, in which not one but three actresses are used to embody the different stages of the pop icon's career. Her vocal androgyny often lent itself to her visuals as well, making her a leader of the '70s pack of gender-benders.

Cher (left), and Dior on the runway (right).
Image: Getty Images/Fred Mott Cher (left), and Dior on the runway (right).

The iconic look: Never one to blend in, Cher's '70s look was quite distinct. Owning more style changes than she has had comeback tours, one of her most distinct trends can be seen in her hippie era, with her bohemian look dominated by striking stripes. It's all about loose fits and glam makeup.