Caz McKinnon explores how one singer’s sense of style helped her achieve iconic status.
In Paris 2012 Jean Paul Gaultier released his Autumn Winter Collection to mixed reviews in Paris. For a couture show, critics seemed slightly confused by the show’s inspiration. The collection was a direct homage to Amy Winehouse, incorporating her signature beehive hairstyle, knee length pencil skirts and skin tight polo shirts. Having been released only a few months after her passing, the collection can be viewed as a loving send off to the iconic superstar whose life was struck with so much chaos and tragedy. However it can also be viewed as a direct explication for how Amy Winehouse’s style wasn’t just innovative but how it reached levels of icon status that few ever come close to.
With fashion as in music, Amy Winehouse made an impact at the height of her fame. Her messy beehive hair style (that is known in the United States as “British hair”), her tight, 1950’s inspired dresses and her cat-like eye make-up influenced Chanel, Dior and Givenchy’s collections between 2006-2008. Her look was influenced by her adoration of jazz, soul and 1950’s girl groups; it was this same love that gave her a distinctive sound that was, and is, entirely its own.
Amy Winehouse was certainly not the first star whose style became emblematic due to the intensive media scrutiny she faced. Princess Diana, Cheryl, Lindsey Lohan and Marilyn Monroe had the same effect on popular culture, shaping the tone not just in their respective fields but in the way the public ingested their style and how designers conceived new ideas from what the public were preoccupied with.
However, what distinguishes Amy from other media fixations is that her style was wholly unique and not akin to what was in fashion at the time. While women like Diana and Lohan were notorious for emboldening styles from the time that were already popular, Amy Winehouse devised a new look that was entirely original, not unlike her music.
In 2015, Asif Kapadia released a documentary called Amy, a harrowing and intimate look into Amy Winehouse’s life story. The film does a good job of examining her love for things of the past. The artists who motivated her like, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennet, encapsulate why her haunting low contralto voice created music that was simultaneously fresh and new while also being classic and timeless.
There is something paradoxical about how Winehouse’s music influenced her style; it is at once gritty, messy and raw while also being controlled, poised and finely tuned. Her music and her style have this in common.
The stripped back production of “What is it about Men” (2003) has a bass guitar being plucked mournfully in the background, the studio version bearing some resemblance to early Mary J Blidge with a 90’s inspired RnB backing track. Early Amy Winehouse is much more influenced by jazz. It is unvarnished and marked by its authenticity. Her style then was much less developed as an image, when she wore her hair flat and straight with boyish jeans and eclectic but usually unassuming blouses and t-shirts.
Then came Back To Black in 2006, an album that shot through the stratosphere. Overnight it became the UK’s second best selling album of the 21st century, selling 3.8 million copies in the UK alone and a whopping 20 million copies worldwide. Produced by Mark Ronson and Salam Remi who had worked with The Fugees and Nas, the album has a sound and a visual aesthetic that would be what defined Amy Winehouse in the lexicon: Pop tracks heavily influenced by jazz, RnB, soul and hip hop with a lot of acoustic beats and pointed percussion.
This however would mean nothing if the album didn’t contain arguably some of the best lyrical content to be written in years. Not unlike Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks, there is a whole new generation of artists who owe a debt to Amy Winehouse. Adele, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift to name a few. Being a woman who unabashedly spoke about how difficult and trying love, mental health and addiction were set a tone for female artists coming up within the industry.
Lyrics like “We only said goodbye with words/ I died a hundred times/ You go back to her/ And I go back to black” (Back to Black, 2006) and “This face in my dreams seizes my guts/ He floods me with dread/ Soaked in soul/ He swims in my eyes by the bed/ Pour myself over him/ Moon spilling in/ And I wake up alone” ( Back to Black, 2006) are deeply indicative of her writing style. Confessional, introspective, vulnerable; how it would feel to read someone’s diary. Songs like Rehab and Love is a Losing Game are already considered classics arguably for this reason. It is this hybrid of music and lyrics that makes Amy Winehouse an icon in her own right, in a way that is exempt from heroin, The 27 club, Blake Fielder Civil and the torrential media storm that helped take her life.
It is hard to separate or compartmentalise what it is that made Amy so iconic. It seems to be a sparkling combination of her nuanced, oddball approach to fashion and her soulful, trailblazing approach to producing music of the highest calibre. What I am sure of however, is that she was indeed an icon. An icon of music, British culture and fashion.
What remains in her legacy is the idea of authenticity. Of being true to your own self, no matter how much on the side-lines that puts you, manifesting in the form of style, make up, music and lyrics.