As if I need an excuse to write about Patti Smith, one of my top style icons—and icons in general—today marks the 35th anniversary of the release of her first, amazing album, Horses. I saw Patti earlier this year at a reading/performance to promote her new book and, as usual, she charmed the socks off of every person in the auditorium (Socks sidebar: Once I saw Patti at an outdoor concert, and while she was dancing around she peeled off her socks and whirled them over her head like she was going to fling them into the audience, stripper style, before collapsing into giggles. It was so cute).
One of my favorite parts from the reading was when the interviewer, rock writer Charles Cross, asked her what she thought about O Magazine recently naming her as a fashion icon. Patti shrugged her shoulders underneath her Ann Demeulemeester jacket, giggled and said in mock surprise, “It’s not my fault!” She paused for the crowd to finish laughing and continued in her thick New Jersey accent, “I’ve always loved fashion. I’ve just got my own way of dealin’ with it.”
I’ve always loved Patti’s timeless outfit of men’s jeans, boots, T-shirt, tie and jacket, that, in more recent years, have evolved into something more a bit more tailored, thanks to a collaboration/friendship with Demeulemeester. In a New York Times article from last March, Ruth la Ferla describes how Patti’s artistry extends beyond words and music to fashion, noting: “She has a rarefied feel for that kind of evocative detail — no stray seam escaping her scrutiny. That might stun her fans, who think of Ms. Smith as a gnarly rocker, thrashing and howling soulfully on stage. But style-world insiders embrace her as a kindred spirit whose discerning eye and sensitive fashion antennas might be the envy of a veteran stylist.” She writes how Patti delights in drawing admiration for her disheveled appearance, relaying the story about how Salvador Dali, fawning over Patti’s skinny frame and messy hair, told her, “You are like a gothic crow.”
The cover of Horses introduces what will become the classic Patti Smith look, but the Easter cover will always be my favorite image of her. It was the first record of hers that I bought—prior I only owned a twice-dubbed cassette of Horses—and I’d play “Rock and Roll Nigger” over and over and gaze at the cover and Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of her. It’s like he caught her dancing in a room by herself: hands clawed into hair, body twisted to the left and mouth shaped into the quintessential rock-star pout. Her vintage camisole is like an afterthought—she wears it inside out—and thin silver chains are slung across her neck and body, framing a wisp of black armpit hair: I’d never seen anything cooler. To my 16-year-old self, Patti was the antithesis of what I’d been told was sexy, and by denying that definition she became utterly alluring. How strange it was, to piece together her image and balance it with the in-your-face sexuality of the ’80s: rocker chicks leaving nothing to the imagination and pop queens practicing grownup versions of peek-a-boo games. The only conclusion I could draw was simply that her realness was clearly something to aspire to. And so I did.
Because her look is designed to initially repel, Patti’s sweetness and glimpses of femininity often come as a surprise. Another favorite moment from the aforementioned reading was when Cross asked a question submitted from the audience: Who would you like to collaborate with? Patti answered, “Russell Crowe,” to which Cross asked her to clarify: musically or acting? Patti smiled a huge smile, “As a girl,” she replied. —Ali Basye