Patti Smith: The Unlikely Style Icon Who Deserves It Most

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“We didn’t have the phrase ‘style icon’ when I was young,” Patti Smith said. The musician (and poet, and artist, and all-around hero), now 68 years old, was sitting in front of a rapt crowd inside Hearst Tower, taking questions about her new memoir, M Train. She was there for part of Hearst’s “Master Class” series, where young magazine editors and assistants pack into an auditorium to commune with notable cultural figures. It made sense that in this crowd, in this building devoted to spreading fashion news to the rest of the world, someone would ask Smith who her own style icons were. “I just copied Bob Dylan and French symbolist poets,” she said. And then, added with a little smirk: “and Catholic school boys.”
What does it mean to be a style icon? Is it eccentricity? Boldness? Undeniable, dripping glamour that radiates off the body? Is it comfort and ease in $100,000 couture? Is it making tattered, ripped clothing look like couture? Is it wearing a statement piece until it becomes a signature? Is it repeating sartorial gestures over and over until you have distilled your cultural and creative values into a “look,” and one that can be copied, riffed on, reproduced, and put on a poster? Is it not caring at all? I have often tossed these questions around in my head, thinking about all of my style icons and why they seem to call out to me. There’s Iris Apfel, with her giant tortoiseshell glasses and her kooky caftans and mountains of accessories; there’s Barbra Streisand in her youth, a bouffant and a cat-eye and a pop of citrus orange or black sequins; there’s Anita Loos, the tiny, brunette writer of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who bopped around Los Angeles in a black bob, velvet turban, and a fur coat in the 1920s; there’s Susan Sontag in the '70s, swaddled in turtlenecks with that defiant streak of gray in her hair like a slash of war paint; there’s Gilda Radner, who managed to make overalls and pigtails look equally goofy and seductive. If there is anything that ties these women together — and the hundred other women I have tacked up on my walls, pinned into notebooks, used as my desktop background — it’s the way that fashion illuminates their deeper selves: the external and internal working in tandem to send a kind of coherent message. Superheroes may be born into their fates, but icons are made — at least style icons, anyway. On some level, a woman has to put in the effort to match her inner fire with her outer swagger to earn the title. No single outfit can ever make an icon: it is a lifetime practice of getting up in the morning and putting on something that tells the world exactly what you want it to see. Only a few people ever manage it.
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Patti Smith is one of those people. As her new memoir hits shelves, I have been thinking a lot about what makes her iconic, and what one can learn from her life-long love affair with androgynous style. As it turns out, it’s more than just putting on a white T-shirt and desert boots and forgetting to comb your hair for a couple days. Smith has elevated style, the way she elevates most other things she touches, to the realm of art. She approaches clothes with the same punk attitude she has been approaching her writing and music with since she and Robert Mapplethorpe crashed together in the smallest room at the Chelsea Hotel. She had no money, but she had a vision.

I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.

Patti Smith
Although Patti Smith says she didn’t have the term “style icon” when she was younger, I believe she knew exactly what she was doing. She dressed with purpose, even as a young girl. In high school, she says, she was inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s beatnik bohemian in Funny Face, and would pick through the Salvation Army in her hometown in New Jersey for discarded designer pieces, putting together looks that she had seen in old magazines. When she got to New York to try to become an artist (and anyone who wants to read about her youthful adventures should absolutely read her first memoir, Just Kids, a heartbreaking homage to Mapplethorpe, young love, and late nights at CBGB), she chopped off her long hair in order to start over. She writes, “My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet. I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.” Finding this miraculous androgyny — which Smith still channels today; at Hearst, she wore lace-up boots, classic blue jeans, and a tailored suit jacket — was the moment Smith began harnessing her inner fire and matching it with what she showed the world. She started to dress like no other woman of the time. Smith was really one of the first female musicians to wear the cigarette pants, ratted hair, tight white T-shirt, leather jacket look that is now the uniform of so many women rockers. She channeled her own idols — Dylan, Rimbaud, the gender-bending women of Weimar-era Germany, Yves Montand, Keith Richards, Ava Gardner — but re-mixed them for her own budget, first paltry and then more generous with time, until recently when she became able to afford to incorporate pieces from Ann Demeulemeester (she even walked in one of her shows), Alexander McQueen, and even gifts from other icons. She has a pair of leather boots given to her by Johnny Depp.
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This is the real secret: Style icons have style icons. They love those who came before with a zeal that propels them to grab whatever pieces of that person they can, to emulate that person’s spirit however they can. They incorporate what they desire, and then, putting together all these influences into a new look, start to transmit an energy that is totally new. Patti Smith has a wild imagination — listen to any of her songs or read her poetry and you will see it immediately — and she lets what she wears become an extension of that. It is a place where she can process all that she has read and seen in her wandering around the world, all the women and men that she wanted to be, all of the books she has ever read. For me, Patti Smith is an icon because she looks like no one else, but also because she is so transparent about how much she owes to her influences, and how very much she loves fashion. She plays with it, lets it speak to her, spends time living in it and infusing each piece with meaning. She lives a woman’s life — she was a wife, is a mother — but in a defiantly masculine uniform, and always on her own terms.

I had no sense of how it should look, just that it should be true.

Whenever I think about Patti Smith, I think of that famous image of her on the cover of her album Horses, where she is wearing a crisp white shirt, unbuttoned, with a black ribbon looped around her neck like an undone tie. She has tossed a black jacket over one shoulder. Her hair is wild; no makeup. In Just Kids, she writes about this photograph, taken by Mapplethorpe, her best friend, sometimes lover, and muse. Planning for the photo, she promised him that she would “wear a clean shirt with no stains on it.” Of course, she had a bigger goal in mind: “I had no sense of how it should look, just that it should be true.” I think, for me, that’s what ultimately makes a style icon: truth. You can simply tell who wears clothes to reflect the truth about who they are and who they hope to be, and those who wear them to follow a trend, or to cover up an insecurity with artifice. All that matters in fashion is that you use your clothes to tell the truth. Find out who you really are, and then dress that way. Tie a ribbon around your neck, see how it feels. If it feels honest to you, keep channeling Patti. Take what you can from her look and mix it into the bowl of your own aesthetic instincts. You just might look iconic doing it.

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