Horses - Fashion Week on BTR


Patti Smith in Copenhagen, 1976. Photo by Ib Rasmussen.

In a strange way, it both started and ended with an album cover released right in the middle of her career. Patti had been living in New York consistently since 1969[1] where she would remain until her move to Detroit in 1979.[2] To the poet at the time, it seemed nothing more than a photograph of her everyday self, taken by celebrated photographer (although not yet) and soul mate, Robert Mapplethorpe. When Horses was released in 1975, Smith’s career as a poet-performer/rock star was already four years old. Yet it was not until the ’75 album cover that Patti Smith would earn her place on the shelves of rock and roll fame forever, setting new trends in female fashion and sparking an erasure of traditional style-related gender coding. “It’s difficult in the late 1990s to comprehend how strange, how unusual the image Patti presented on the cover of Horses was in 1975,” writes Patti Smith biographer Victor Bockris. “At that time, female rock singers were supposed to be glamorous and sexy in the traditional way, with makeup and carefully styled hair…. The cover of Horses completely captured the essence of Patti and of the moment, and it offered a new image of the rock ‘n’ roll woman—ambiguous, androgynous, but strong and in control.”[3]

The photo spoke out to every woman, regardless if she was a fan of rock music or Patti Smith at all. It relayed the message that women were on the brink of obtaining new social ground, a position where they would be empowered to do and say as they pleased. ‘Male’ was no longer the only gender with access to specific rough-edged styles or aggressive emotions. The photo of Patti Smith on the cover of Horses made it clear: the masculine expressionism that had been commonly associated with rock and roll music and youth pop culture was going to be explored from both sides of the gender-line from now on.

Sheila Whiteley, professor and chair of popular music at the University of Salford, considers the cultural impact of the Smith image on Horses on a grander scale: “[S]he was the instigator, the sexy androgyne whose extraordinary stare and lithe, sensual body challenged the sexual certainties of mainstream femininity.”[4]

Whiteley goes on to argue that the ambiguity represented in the photograph is so evocative it continues to this day in creating curious emotional responses and cognitive reactions from its viewer. Seeing Patti in a white-collar business shirt, black slacks, black suspenders, and a scout-blazer tossed over her shoulder, oozes the masculine-cool of James Dean and the artistic self-confidence of Bob Dylan; a far cry from the elegant Barbara Streisand on albums The Barbara Streisand Album and The Second Barbara Streisand Album (1963). Her unkempt hair resembles more Keith Richards than Joan Baez, and certainly more than someone like punk-rival Deborah Harry. The Mapplethorpe image almost forces one to consider her own definitions of the masculine-feminine relationship and its borders, and leads to the recognition of a profound individualism in the artist and her conscious effort to blur conventional gender identification-markers. The social impact on passive feminists, ardent women’s rights liberalists, and closet lesbians alike was enormous. Suddenly cohorts of women began to intentionally don men’s clothing in replacement of their own orthodox female dress, and “soon gangs of teenage girls wearing white shirts with thin black ties began gathering” in clumps across the United States.[5] It makes one wonder where Dian Keaton got the inspiration for her wardrobe in Woody Allen’s 1977 four-time Academy Award winning Annie Hall [6](including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Film). This imitation of the Patti Smith-style marked the genesis to Judith Butler’s “subversion of identity” theory.

The legendary album cover by Robert Mapplethorpe.

In many ways, the cover to Horses was an image full of contradictions: It marked both the beginning and the ending to the Patti Smith androgynous mystique; it ended male-female distinction and it began the identification of the “ontological core gender.”[7] It was also the image that introduced Patti to the world, yet remains the image that most people associate with Patti Smith still today. It is a photograph of a female sex symbol, yet lacks glitter and glamour. Where it disappoints in traditional feminine beauty, it impresses in confidence. Finally, the artist’s insistence to maintain her own style and aura, sans gender, mirrors the sentiments of the male artists whom she idolized. “Smith wanted to be her male idol as much as she longed to be around them. And, unlike other women who fawned over male musicians, she internalized and emulated the things she liked about them, creating her own statements, forging a new musical woman.”[8] The more Smith appeared in the public eye as the female voice of punk, the further she pushed her androgynous style. As her popularity grew, Smith emphasized the clothes she wore, her refusal for makeup, and her disheveled appearance to visually express her non-conventional female attitude.

Without doubt, Patti Smith was the original ‘angry young woman.’ There is nothing to take away from the hundreds of women in American music before Horses was released in ‘75. But even if the discussion is narrowed to just the American rock and roll genre, and Smith is compared to Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, or Stevie Nicks for example, there is still a strong argument that prior female musicians did not kick off a revolution of feminist imitators the way Patti Smith did. Patti made everything about being a woman in the mid-seventies different. She took the female figure in music away from the role of performer or groupie and owned it. A parallel to this notion is found in the way young male black rappers repossessed the n-word in the 1980s and empowered it to be theirs, and for their terms of use only. Smith de-masculinized what had been up to that point a masculine art form. Note the intentional non-use of the word “feminized”—and this is essentially the point. Ever since the androgynous styles of Patti Smith, there has been a vast difference in the phrasing of such notions.

A comparison between Patti Smith and Janis Joplin provides a quick example of the evolution of the female rocker. Janis Joplin was a great blues singer and an inspiration to a lot of female artists and women during the 1960s. Joplin had an excellent voice, and the emotion she put behind her words expelled proof of the pain and suffering women were experiencing at that period in time. As inspiring as it was, her act was still held as agency to the male institution of rock and roll. Unfortunately, female musicians like Janis existed in the sixties to either: a) Provide a distinctive voice to a group of otherwise all-male musicians (think Jefferson Airplane or Big Brother and the Holding Company); b) Bring sex-appeal to the performance (think Fleetwood Mac or Ike and Tina Turner); or c) Provide a maternal insight into the world’s problems and a comforting female voice (think Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell). Despite these gross hyper-generalizations, the contention remains that until Patti Smith arrived on the scene, and before female punk and the all-girl rock band, there was not a female musician in mainstream American culture who articulated the gender-emancipated concerns occupying the female mind.

[1] Between 1967-69, Patti was back and forth between Paris, New Jersey, and New York with no real fixed address in New York City.
[2] Bockris, Victor & Bayley, Roberta. Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 209.
[3] ibid. 131.
[4] Whiteley 85.
[5] Bockris 219.
[6] Allen, Woody. Annie Hall, 1977.
[7] Butler 174-5.
[8] Raha, Maria. Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground (Emeryville: Steal Press, 2005), 18.