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Aretha Franklin: An empowering fashion icon in a time of segregation

Aretha Franklin passed away at the age of 76 in the presence of family and friends in her Detroit home. The Queen of Soul who is known for her larger-than-life voice with a career that spanned over 60 years has always been a dazzling diva. Her imminent style — stemmed from her gospel-singing, churchgoing roots — is pretty hard to compete especially when her ever-fabulous fashions through the years have always been bold, fearless and as unforgettable as her voice.

Off the records, Franklin is an empowering fashion icon, who in the times of racial segregation and gender inequality, has inspired women of all colours, shapes and sizes to fight for what is right. Paired with a big charismatic voice, she has since inspired plus-size women all over the world to be comfortable in their own skin and has proven that the entertainment industry is not just about being a size ‘0’.

Aretha Franklin in a studio circa 1960-1969. (Credit: Getty Images)

In the 60s during the reign of her soul sisters, Diana Ross, Nina Simone and Dionne Warwick, Franklin broke the stereotypical model-size exterior by being the curvy woman she was. Tunics, turbans, bold prints and bright colours set her apart from the typical prim and proper 1960s style. The singer has always sported a commanding look, even during her last performance in November 2017, and pays no need to what fashion critics think of her outfits.

The ‘Say A Little Prayer’ singer also embraced her natural locks despite making famous classic 60s styles like the bouffants and beehives. Many are also unaware of her signature turbans and imposing headpieces that inspired the looks of personalities like Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys and Solange Knowles.

Franklin was always known to be over the top. (Credit: NBC via Getty Images)

Franklin also made history by being the first coloured woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine on June 28th 1968. Her presence in music has been as magical as her fashion influences. If it is not too much to say; it was not just about the clothes that she wore but the enigmatic aura that Barack Obama described as “something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”

As soul music has found its apotheosis in Aretha Franklin, the world of fashion now continues to embrace the legacy she left behind. We look back at some of Franklin’s best and most iconic fashion statements that have been trendsetting through the years.

Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait lying on a couch in circa 1973. (Credit: Getty Images)

She is the original queen of couture
When it comes to couture dresses, no one beats the diva herself. Her extravagant looks complemented her voluptuous figure. From fishtails to iridescent fabrics, crystals and embroidered gowns.

Left: Franklin in a tulle fishtail dress; Right: Singer Aretha Franklin performs after she was inducted into the Apollo Legends Hall of Fame at the 2010 Apollo Theater Spring Benefit Concert & Awards Ceremony at The Apollo Theater on June 14, 2010 in New York City. (Credit: Getty Images)

She made turban headpieces sexy in the 60s
Aretha Franklin was always seen with some kind of headpiece — from feathers to a tiara, head wraps to a attention-grabbing turban headpieces. She appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine in December 1971 sporting a vivid green turban that made the Afrikan-inspired look hip. This style has inspired the likes of current artistes Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Erykah Badu to sport statement headwraps during performances and shows.

Left: Aretha Franklin on the cover of Ebony; Right: Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in circa 1970. (Credit: Getty Images)

She made yellow, orange and lemon big before anyone else.
The ‘Respect’ singer knew the power of a yellow dress long before Queen Bey. She has been spotted in many bright tones including a vibrant yellow-green number at the 30th Annual Kennedy Centre Honours in 2007. Her remarkable sense of colours also gave her the confidence to sport the brightest tones in her wardrobe.

Credit: Getty Images

Empire waist dresses were made for her
Empire waist gowns were part of Franklin’s staple wardrobe in the early 60s. Her kaftans and flowy dresses were always embellished with sparkly and shiny materials, yet it was when she appeared in empress waist dresses that commanded attention, inspiring modern day looks. This style is a must-have in all plus-size guides to dressing with the likes of Queen Latifah, Olivia Spencer and Melissa McCarthy walking the red carpet in empire waist gowns and dresses. 

Franklin performing at Madison Square Garden in 1968 wearing a flowing empire waist gown. (Credit: Getty Images)

Furs are Forever
Franklin has a strong affinity to fur from cropped pieces to full-length jackets in a range of colours and styles. In fact, she wore a white fur jacket in her last stage performance in November 2017, at the fall gala for Elton John AIDS Foundation in New York City.

Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Commemorates Its 25th Year And Honors Founder Sir Elton John During New York Fall Gala at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on November 7, 2017 in New York City. (Credit: Getty Images)

More is more
During her 70th birthday bash, the Queen of soul dazzled in a sequin dress, gray fur coat and a sultry purple eyeshadow — a signature layering style that she had sported since the early 70s. It was never about dressing down; as her fame rose, she dressed (even higher) up.

Celebrating her 70th birthday in a heavily sequined dress . with a lush fur coat in similar silvery tones. (Credit: Getty Images)

She made Afrikan fashion vogue in the 70s
Bold prints were one of Franklin’s favourite things to wear. From silhouettes to the embroidery, Afrikan motifs and vibrant colours, Franklin grew to love this fashion style — an homage to her African-American roots.

Franklin’s younger days circa 1960-1969. (Credit: Getty Images)

Cloche hats became famous in 2009
Everyone would remember her most famous look during President Obama’s inauguration where she topped her all-gray ensemble with a big, bold, bow-topped hat embellished with Swarovski crystals. That look went viral in 2009 and made cloche hats the in thing for Sunday’s best. The gray felt cloche is now displayed in the Smithsonian Institute.

Singing at the inauguration of Barack Obana wearing an all-grey look and a cloche hat that became an instant viral hit. (Credit: Getty Images)
Aretha Franklin: An empowering fashion icon in a time of segregation

Martin Teo


Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. On his free time, he finds time scouring through the latest cafes in search for the best croissant in the city.