Views and Reviews


The Quintessential Billie Holiday

Monday, 31 March, 2014 by Costanza Beltrami

Photo: Syd Shelton

Photo: Syd Shelton

Professor Carol Tulloch’s talk The Quintessential Billie Holiday explored the different ‘style narratives’ created by the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-59) during her career. As defined by Tulloch, a ‘style narrative’ is a form of ‘self-telling’ which uses specific beauty regimes and forms of dress to articulate the self within daily life. Tulloch noted that style choices are significant both when they depart from contemporary fashion, and when they appropriate mainstream elements, a useful concept when studying Billie Holiday.

For Holiday’s style choices were always both hyper feminine and modern. Accessories such as her iconic gardenia corsage were common in 1930s eveningwear. Even more contemporary was the twinset, which Holiday adopted whilst recording Lady in Satin in 1958. Popularized by Hollywood actresses in the 1930s, the two-piece outfit became a staple 1950s dress. Evidently, the singer favored styles which, in Tulloch’s words were ‘completely appropriate to modernity.’ They identified her as a female dandy. Yet contrary to the association of foppishness usually carried by the term ‘dandy,’ Tulloch argued that Holiday used hyper-feminine dress to turn her decorated black body into a site of social contest.

Tulloch’s analysis of Holiday’s style as a site of contest concentrated on Holiday’s performances of Strange Fruit at Café Society in 1939. The song’s lyrics, originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, are a moving protest against lynching:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Holiday’s heartrending performances made the song unforgettable. Her performances can be analyzed though Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘grain of the voice,’ a form of sensual communication which circumvents the limits of the linguistic sphere through the intimate connection of body, music and words. Body, in Holiday’s performances, meant face. At the beginning of Strange Fruit all stage lights were dimmed to a pinhole, concentrating the spectators’ gazes on the singer’s lineaments, hair and gardenia corsage.Image

The legend goes that Holiday first wore the corsage to cover a patch of burnt hair which she had burnt preparing for a show whilst drunk. This story chimes with the popular myth that Holiday could not sing without alcohol or drugs. Arguing against this interpretation, Tulloch presented the corsage as integral to Strange Fruit’s performance. Drawing attention to the singer’s face, the flowers gave visibility to the tears Holiday always shed when performing. Thus, they emphasized the song’s resonance with Billie Holiday’s own life, especially the death of her father. Tulloch further explored the song’s sense of tragedy with reference to Yinka Shonibare’s Addio del Passato film (2012) and Fake Death pictures (2011).

This lecture clearly demonstrated, in line with the overarching theme of the Documenting Modernity lecture series, that non-fiction films (such as music videos) and documentary images can provide new ways to understand dress, style and visual culture. Yet as the audience’s questions underlined, a wider contextualization of Billie Holiday’s dandyism would have made her conscious style choices easier to register and unpack.

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