Image is everything for pop stars but few icons are as generous in sharing the praise for their poise as Debbie Harry. When it comes to her new-wave wardrobe, the singer credits the late fashion designer and artist Stephen Sprouse as having single-handedly masterminded her image at the most pivotal point of her career.
In a 1979 interview with ‘Berry’ Berenson Perkins for Manhattan Cable TV, entitled Debbie Harry and Friends, she describes meeting Sprouse in 1975 as “a magnificent coincidence for my whole career”. The pair, who moved in the same artistic circles, ended up living in the same loft in New York’s Bowery district, sharing a bathroom and kitchen. Sprouse, who also features in the interview, recalls the first time he laid eyes on her: “I just freaked, you know? She looks like this fantasy of the ultimate rock singer... She’s so beautiful and she can sing like crazy.”
When she first started performing live, Harry would wear “all sorts of campy clothes” sourced from second-hand stores. “Everything was either as sexy as possible or as outrageous and funny as possible. I’d find disgusting spike heels with leopard spots and tight Capri pants, or pedal-pushers, with big plastic purses and drop earrings,” she told Perkins, recalling her one attempt at designing: she fashioned a waistcoat out of “this funky material”. “It was the forerunner to fake fur,” she said, adding, “I looked like Attila the Hun or something... I loved it... About a year later, Sonny & Cher came out with their long hairy vests and I knew that I had something.”
Sprouse had found a kindred style spirit in Harry – with her fearless, vampish and tongue-in-cheek attitude to attire. So he crafted his first ever dress especially for the singer. Harry described it as “a black knit one-shoulder thing, a dance tight that Stephen altered and made into a little mini-dress.” She wore it with black thigh-high boots and, from that point on, would only wear Stephen Sprouse originals.It was to prove a shrewd marketing move.
“What I used to do – which was a mistake, I think – was wear millions and millions of things that were never really a trademark, but would make each show happen; it was very artistic but very limited,” Harry told Berenson Perkins. “Now it’s very concise, and everything is sort of organised so that the identity of what I am as the lead singer of Blondie stays in people’s minds. It changes, but yet it’s there.” So in 1979 alone Harry wore a Smurf-blue silk bustier jumpsuit with a triangular chest cut-out (plus matching headband, tights and shoes) for a performance of Heart of Glass on NBC’s Midnight Special. Shades and a white sailor dress was her choice for a performance of Sunday Girl on Top of the Pops on the BBC, and she donned a yellow silk top with painterly pink lines and matching trousers for a concert at the Apollo.
The platinum-blonde ex-Playboy Bunny’s stance on ‘sexy’ was decidedly unconventional, despite her picture-perfect features. Harry’s penchant for strong eye make-up and a dishevelled bleach-job were major parts of her anti-establishment image, with the band’s name coming from the nickname men hollered appreciatively at Harry. (Had they stuck to their original moniker, Angel and the Snake, it wouldn’t have been quite the same.) It saw the otherwise all-American sweetheart allied with New York’s punk scene, performing at cult club CBGB alongside The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Talking Heads and the Ramones.
And the raw creations Sprouse (who went on to launch a cult fashion line) cobbled together from cut-up t-shirts and tights, were also compared to the clothes Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren were peddling in their Pistols-outfitting shop, Sex, in London. But Sprouse had a glamorous edge all of his own, combining inspiration from art, rock’n’roll and couture for designs that were unlike anything else. On Harry – with her electrifying energy,smouldering eyes and sculptural cheekbones – the cocktail was especially potent. One of their most celebrated looks was a wispy silver asymmetric dress, printed with TV scan lines and sandwiched between layers of chiffon to create an optical effect; a single strap at the neck added a graphic angle. Harry wore it in the video for Blondie’s number one hit Heart of Glass in 1978, accessorized with bright red lipstick. A Day-Glo yellow Sprouse jumpsuit was another of Harry’s most-talked-about outfits, worn for a turn on Top of the Pops.
So perfectly preserved was Harry’s ice-cool image in the hearts and minds of music buffs, seeing Blondie return to the charts in 1999 was a shock to the senses. Comeback album No Exit not only delivered number one hit Maria, as catchy as anything on 1978’s Parallel Lines, it also unveiled an older Harry: still beautiful and slightly batty. Her hair was longer, more Morticia Adams than Marilyn-in-the-mortuary, and her Kohl-laden lids were shyly hiding behind RayBans, but Debbie had lost little of her dazzle. A career-crippling drug addiction had taken its toll, and years spent trying to break into acting – with parts in cult classics Videodrome and Hairspray proving more successful than her Broadway debut, in flop musical Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap – distracted her from her true vocation. But, backed by Blondie once more, it was like she’d never been away. Grown men wept, impressionable women booked hair appointments.
Like Madonna (her junior by a mere 13 years), Harry has oft been accused of trying too hard –to grab attention, to hold on to her youthful looks (she’s admitted she underwent a facelift in the early ’90s). But she’s simply a product of her environment. In an interview with The New York Times that coincided with the Costume Institute’s 2013 exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, Harry described the era’s evocative style as “deliberately transgressive”, recalling how she made outfits of cinched garbage bags and pillowcases found on the street. “I almost got thrown off a bus once for wearing my underwear,” she recalled. “The bus driver screamed at me. I had on little orange satiny-pink tap pants – they looked fantastic, but he was outraged that I was walking around in my skivvies. I remember using my bra as outerwear, and really getting a lot of bad looks. It just felt right. It looked hot.” And with Blondie’s tenth studio album, Ghosts of Download, due out in mid-March, hot on the heels of Harry receiving the Godlike Genius accolade at the UK’s NME Awards, those words could well remain her mantra: ‘Felt right, looked hot’. What more can we ask of fashion?