Let's Talk Clothes
By Dino Orlando
Originally published in January, 1973
issue of "Words & Music", published by
Poppy Press, New York (now out of business)
Frank Zappa walked on stage of New York's "Felt Forum" in the same worn, baggy blue shirt he was wearing earlier that evening in his dressing room; and the same old jeans, ripped on one side over the shiny brace which he wears on his left leg as a result of his Rainbow Theatre accident in London. He wore no makeup, had not combed his hair or buttoned one more button on the shirt. I decided to interview him on his ideas about fashions.
"Fashions?" shouted Frank when I asked him after the show. "Man, you've got to be kidding!"
"Yes, Mr. Zappa, I'd like your ideas on the way some artists dress," I insisted. "Come on, Frank, it's going to be a trip!" "Some trip," agreed Frank, "this is going to be the freakiest thing I've ever done!" And added, "You know, I think you've got the wrong guy." "I'm sure I do. That's why I want you," I said.
We met the next day at his hotel suite and this is what came out:
Dino: The reason I'm interviewing you is that I want to somewhat balance this column. Up to now, I've been talking to very dressy types of people – English artists mostly and new artists who are very conscious of how a performer should look. I'd like to know your opinion about how you think a performer should look. You don't seem to be the dressy type and you are by far not fashion conscious. But you've been through several changes and it seems to me the 1970's are going to produce many more changes in music as well as in appearance. Do you personally plan any change in look?
Frank: You mean in the way I dress?
Yes. You have gone through several changes and many times you've been first.
Well, I don't plan any changes. I wear whatever is comfortable for the work I do.
You are wearing a brace on your leg. That's not the reason why you wear ripped bluejeans, is it?
I wear bluejeans 50% of the time.
Sometimes the things you wear are very fancy, and sometimes they're just very comfortable.
I don't think that I've ever worn anything that was very fancy. It's hard to play in fancy stuff.
Well, you've worn velvet slacks and shiny shirts. Is it that you don't particularly like them or plan it?
I wear whatever's in the suitcase.
But you do shop for your clothes.
Yeah, but I don't always wear that stuff on stage. In fact, I've a lot of stuff that I've never worn more than once or twice.
In other words, you don't pick your clothes to project a visual image of yourself. It's whatever happens to come in handy, and right now you're not wearing the jeans because of the bad leg, but because you feel right and comfortable in them.
Your primary interest then is your music, and this is what you want to project.
My biggest worry about what to wear on stage is whether or not the arms are too tight on the shirt.
That's understandable. Incidentally, is that why you wear baggy shirts?
Yes. If the arms are too tight when you play your guitar, this arm muscle expands – and if the shirt sleeve is too tight, it makes your hand go slower. So I usually wear short or 3/4 sleeved shirts, or a shirt that has loose long sleeves.
You can't help the fact that your fans are going to copy you – even visually, meaning in the way you dress. Have you done anything for them from that point of view? Or would you do something?
Well, I would say that when I was living in New York in '67, the clothes I wore were a bit more stylized than what I'm wearing now. Some of the things I had were a little more humorous to look at.
Yes, I noticed some of your things: vests, scooped T-shirts ...
I used to wear suspenders and khakis. Firemen's suspenders.
Well, it's strange that you should adapt this very plain simple look now that everything is super- glamorous.
I'm not super-glamorous. I always wore suspenders. There was nothing glamorous about those kind of clothes in 1967 and I doubt that they'd he glamorous now.
But they were right then.
Yeah, they were right for what I was doing and I just felt like wearing them. I would probably feel funny wearing those same clothes again.
I said that your fans are bound to copy the way you look and dress. They probably have over the years: beard, mustache ... Can you think of any fads which you created and your fans copied?
Well, I noticed a few things I started wearing appeared in other places. I was wearing cropped T- shirts ... with the stomach showing. They copied that. But I don't think of myself as one of the best dressed men in rock 'n roll.
Well, you may please yourself but that has bearing on the way you look. Your T-shirts, for instance, I'm sure everybody wants to wear them because they have your face on them.
You mean the T-shirts they were selling at the concert last night? I had nothing to do with those things. Nobody even told me they were made.
But your face was on them.
I wasn't told about the shirts or that they were using my face on them. The first time I saw them was last night.
Were you embarrassed when that chick handed you the shirt on stage? You looked at it quietly and didn't make a big to do about it.
That was the second one I had seen. They were selling purple ones that had block print on it – another design. You know, I don't know where those things come from; I don't ask to have them made and I don't receive any money from them. As far as I'm concerned it's a rip-off and I think it's a stupid thing.
Isn't it libelous to use your likeness, Frank?
Yes, but the problem is that you've got to track down who made the shirts, take them to court, and then wait three years. By the time you get into court, you wind up having to audit some books which may not exist at that time. That's what happened with that toilet poster. I never posed for a poster and it went all over the world.
And somebody was making bread from Frank Zappa. That's a classic rip-off.
That probably happens to a lot of people.
Would you put something else on these T-shirts that would represent you more as a musician?
The only time a T-shirt represents something to me as a musician, is when it has nothing on it. I like this T-shirt I'm wearing. It's reversible, it's two colors; if this part gets smelling too bad, I turn it inside out.
Then it smells worse. But you know, the trouble is this: you can't help your fans digging you physically and visually; you can't help that they're in love with Frank Zappa. Aren't you going to do anything about it?
Look here. If somebody wants to wear a T-shirt with a big drawing, and they want to pay some guy X number of dollars for a T-shirt, imprinted with some kind of image, that's their business. If that makes them happy, let them wear the T-shirt.
Do you think 1970 has brought a change in music and in the way we look?
Maybe it has and maybe It hasn't. I don't pay that much attention to it.
I think it has brought a tremendous change.
But these changes are always backwards. It's always a recapitulation of something that has already happened.
What about the things the English artists are wearing; the super-sleek shiny stuff?
Shiny stuff designed along what lines? What's new about a 17th or 18th century costume that's been modified? Also in the United States, we now have this return of the 30's, 40's, 50's.
Not always. For example, I would say that David Bowie, among others, is into space clothes and that's very new.
Those space suits were in films like Destination Moon or one of those old science fiction movies. So I would say that space clothes probably originated from a designer who was making costumes for the 1957 picture awards.
It's new. It's a costume for a new era.
It's not new, it's old. It's from the '50's. It's 1950's modified space clothes.
Maybe you just like the 1950 clothes best. I've seen you wear sweaters with big letters and other things.
I Just happen to have a lot of those clothes.
Well, you've done something good. The 50's are good for fashion, you know, they're coming back.
They'll come back for awhile and then they'll go away.
The 1960's will come hack. Maybe Beatle wigs will be back in 20 years. You watch, they'll be making coats out of them.
Frank, you were doing outrageous things before Alice Cooper even started. What do you think of his gig?
If he wants to do outrageous things, let him do it.
Do you think it's pertinent to his music?
Well, it isn't pretty from a fashion point of view, but it's striking. It's gotten a lot of artists wearing makeup.
I don't. Not that I wouldn't. But fuck it. It's a waste of time putting on makeup. I'll wait until men start wearing bras.
Did you shorten your hair?
Yes. I had to.
Is there a reason why you wear your hair at this length? Do you think it's becoming?
Well my hair was a lot longer before. I wouldn't bother to cut it; but when I would eat, it would hang down and get in my mouth. so I started tying it back. It looked shorter, so I figured I might as well cut it to somewhere in between.
But you're not going to cut it any shorter.
I may get it trimmed, it's getting in my mouth now.
Kids are cutting their hair short, do you like that?
That's their business; it's their hair.
But do you like it better? I'm still talking about the changes. Long hair started off as a rebellion against something. So I guess the new change has got to be short hair, if they want to rebel about something else.
So they'll have space hair or Saran-wrapped wigs.
Nylon stockings with talcum powder. The leper look.
You know something, I have a funny feeling you're going to come out with some very strange things in the near future.
Don't kid yourself. Here it is ladies and gentlemen ... my look!
I have some more questions. Are your everyday pants flared or straight legged, when you're not wearing jeans, that is?
Well I had to have some wide pants in order to get the leg over this brace. I had to cut these Levis for the same reason.
Are clothes just functional to you?
Yes. Tell you what I look for in a pair of pants I don't want to squash my balls when I'm sitting down.
Like those English pants?
Yes, those can get painful.
I know. All those English guys are wearing their pants so tight that I look at them and wonder how they sit down.
You mean it's difficult. It looks like the tightness just happens, but that's not true. There are a lot of secrets to cutting those pants to make them look right. The English are always up to some tricks as far as dressing is concerned.
What else is there to do over there?
I interviewed Marc Bolan last week. Of course he is the extreme opposite of you as far as fashion goes. He went through four changes during the interview. I sort of liked that. But that's why I wanted to talk to you, I figured you wouldn't do four changes.
No, Dino, I won't do four changes.
Incidentally, what is your favorite color? I read somewhere it's Naples yellow. Was that a put on?
No, no. Naples yellow is a very nice color, But I seldom have clothes in that color – they just don't make them.
Do you wear any special color?
Mostly purple. I probably have more purple clothes than anything else.
Frank, you're Sicilian, why would you like Naples yellow?
Well, Naples yellow is a kind of paint color that they have in a lot of kitchens.
All kinds of kitchens. It starts white, then it gets greasy and becomes vellow.
Do you have any opinions about musicians who dress up a lot?
I think they are having quite a lot of fun. I think whatever you want to wear is fine.
Not always, because I asked one of them recently why he wore such beautiful clothes. He answered, 'They give me self-assurance on stage." That makes me feel good, as a designer. But you obviously don't need that self-assurance.
Well, I think I would feel awfully strange running out in ...
Is that just because of your image?
No, I'd just feel weird getting that dressed up expecting to function musically with that much on my body.
O.K. Do you like heels?
No. I may wear shoes to make me taller but ...
In other words, you don't follow any fads. Could you tell me what your birth sign is?
Is there a particular look you like on women? Do you mean the kind of clothes they wear? I mean there's a revamp. We talk about 1950's, there's been 1940's – also very sexy, a lot of boobs, curves and the whole thing; or do you just like the plain look; like the young lady who just went by wearing a peasant dress (referring to Gail, Frank's wife).
I don't really pay that much attention to girl's clothes.
What turns you on about a woman?
They also come through the clothes, you know?
Yeah. Well, sometimes they come through the clothes, sometimes the clothes come through them.
It's like a pretty package, it somehow appeals to you and it's not only the inside.
Right, you see the whole thing and certain things will stick out, and if you wind up judging everybody by what they wear, you're going to be in trouble. With clothes, a lot has to do with how much time you devote to dressing up and how much money you have to spend on the project of adorning your body. People with more money certainly have the advantage of getting their clothes act together, and people with no time or money on their hands can't do much shopping for clothes.
In your dressing room last night, I noticed quite a few nicely dressed people, the girls especially. That's the reason I'm asking you these questions.
Well, I have nothing to do with that. As far as the people in the group, what they wear on stage is their business. I don't tell them what they have to wear.
You don't really think it's pertinent to their music?
Well, obviously, if you were to have the whole band decked in some flamboyant costume, uniquely detailed in every respect, the lights carefully aimed at each one of them so that every sequin would glitter into the audience, the visual impact would be ten times greater, hut nobody would bother to listen to the music. It would be a fantastic spectacle and the audience might like it, but do you know what it would cost to do that?
Yes. But it's not only a matter of cost with you. You don't think that this is your message. You think they want to hear the music.
Well, I don't know if they want to hear the music. I'm just not into dressing the band up like that.
When I went to the Academy of Music last week to see T. Rex, the people were wearing sprinkles on their faces and top hats and they all looked like little Marc Bolans.
They were dressing up like that in Los Angeles in 1967, so it's about time it got to New York. In Los Angeles, between 1964 and 1967, it was pretty much the height of the freak period, and there were people wearing the most grotesque clothes you ever saw. Kids were making their own clothes because nobody was selling unusual clothes. They would sit for hours putting things together aud would change their clothes five or six times a day. It would seem that the only reason they had for being alive was to dress up and go some place where people could look at them.
To find somebody they could identify with.
Well, no it was more than that. The whole idea of outraging people who were wearing normal clothes was more prominent in their minds.
It was another rebellion.
Yes. At that time it was just a minority wearing those unusual clothes. So, I would say in a town the size of Hollywood, I don't know how many millions of people are there, you would have a couple of thousand kids who were wearing weird clothes. They would go out in the street at night and you would see raised eyebrows and people panicking at the sight of them. It was some trip.
This gives me a lead. I was just thinking about the fact that it started off as a rebellion, and it changed now to sort of a get together kind of thing. You know, at one time everybody was trying to do his own thing and just do it as crazy as possible. Before they wanted to be different. Now they are all trying to look like somebody. So sociologically it is a change: not belonging and then belonging; not conforming and then conforming.
Sociologically it's a reversion! Sociologically the whole concept of looking like the other guy is back to the 50's. It's a different kind of conformity. If you look at the clothes of the 50's – in high school, for instance, the kids would get together and there would be a trend for one particular brand of shirt, or shoes, or pants. Everybody had to wear exactly the same thing. Now that the 50's are coming back musically, and certain fashions are coming back from the 50's. The whole conformist concept of the 50's is also coming back. And I think that's a negative concept. People may not be dressing in all 1950's costumes and appearing on the street that way, but everybody will wear a certain type of garment. They will do it just so they fit in with their peers.
From a fashion point of view; nothing ever comes back the same. Sneakers, for example, were fashionable in 1950, but today's sneakers have platforms. So, even though it may look the same, it is not. Do you think it's true of music as well?
Yes. The music of the 50's is very difficult to bring back in 100 percent form because of the way in which it was recorded and the consciousness of the people who were recording. It was a lot more naive in those days. It's just not naive anymore. That's the one thing missing from all of the 1950's reruns you hear about.
I would like to find out how you feel about the way people look today since you do reach them with your music. Do you understand their clothes?
You want me to tell you what I think about the way people look today? I think that they look the same as they always did, only different.
That's exactly what I said, nothing ever comes back the same.
But it comes back, you know.
No, it doesn't. What do you think is glamorous today, for instance?
I don't know, you tell me.
You're glamorous. Musicians, music people like you. You are all doing things that turn people on today. Look at Mick Jagger with all the society people following him. A rock critic said recently that Madison Square Garden is the l970's answer to the Hotel Plaza Ballroom. Maybe it is. How did you like the concert last night?
I think the sound got terribly lost. We're going down there this afternoon and see if we can solve those problems and make it sound better for tonight's concert. That's the hardest part about putting any kind of a band on stage: you have the acoustics of the room, the taste of the audience, and the hands of the mixer all to contend with. What I heard on stage had no bearing on what was going on up front. I thought it sounded O.K. on stage.
There was a lot of feedback, but nevertheless it was excellent. I liked it, and in exchange if you decide to do something about the next step in clothes, I'll do it for you.
Well what do you have in mind, Dino?
I couldn't answer. It takes concentration. Now you are into very comfortable clothes and don't have a lead on what you'd like me to design for you.
You know it's more than just being comfortable, I like old clothes that are already broken in. I hate to put on something that is right out of the stirrup; it feels weird.
Before we left, Frank and I were pals and he wanted very much to give tips on what he'd like to see as jewelry. Since jewelry catches onto the instruments, he would like to have it ingrown into the skin, like, let's say, a watch transplanted into your wrist with phosphorescent digits so that you could see it through the skin, and in the dark. Not very practical? Well, Frank is a genius, and geniuses aren't always practical.
It was a beautiful, bright sunny fall day in New York. Frank had done the freakiest thing he'd ever thought of and I had had a ball, as I suspected.
We were all very happy.
References in the interview indicate that it took place during the morning of 23rd September 1972.