The Evolution of Diana Ross
Enjoy another brilliant essay on the style evolution of our favorite dreamgirl, Diana Ross, from our favorite culture and fashion historian, Laura McLaws Helms.
Emerging from the Detroit projects an already polished star, Diana Ross was the silky voiced teenage beauty of the early 1960s—a dazzle of syncopated movements to the love-drenched beat of Motown. Diana Ross was born in Detroit, Michigan, in March 1944 and at 15 joined a local girl group, the Primettes, which later became the Supremes. As from a young age she had shown an aptitude for both music and fashion, Ross acted as costume designer, seamstress, hair stylist and makeup artist for the group—carefully crafting their image: “We actually created an image for girl groups. I was brought up with people who lived with the golden rule. They had a lot of integrity, were clean-living people, caring about others and so on… I've always been interested in fashion, cosmetics and makeup and hair, so the image that we created was very ladylike, very feminine. Our image was really a reflection of beauty and glamour. The image onstage was always ladylike. Our movements were never bumping and grinding—it was very smooth and rhythmic, and the music was the same. All of us were high-school graduates, so we spoke well. This is my upbringing—very respectful” (Rolling Stone, November 1997). Ross’ preoccupation with fashion and style served her singing partners well in the early years as she personally sewed and styled their matching ensembles, which were often ladylike knee-length chiffon dresses or columnar sheaths.
The super polished Supremes were a sensation—their classy, glamorous appearance (all instigated by Ross) and feminine vocal stylings were equally as popular with white audiences as African-American, making them one of the first truly crossover acts. They became the first group to have six consecutive #1 songs in a year. Working with costume designer Michael Travis, Ross made sure that the Supremes look was one of refined elegance. Travis designed costumes for their ten-day run at the Waldorf’s Empire Room in May 1969—the trio wore new beaded gowns for each performance, and the 30 changes were delivered to the Waldorf in sixty suitcases. By mid-1969, the Supremes were working with Bob Mackie on their beaded and feathered costumes, which would evolve into a very long-running relationship for Ross. Mackie remarked in an interview with the Philadelphia Tribune (November 8, 1969) that she gave him full freedom yet he tried to retain the “’Diana Ross Look’ that has made her so distinctive.”
With their cool sexuality, accessible soul and coordinated outfits, the Supremes were the quintessential girl group—yet for all the singularity of image in public, they were strongly individual in private. Throughout her career, Ross emphasized her delicate face and huge almond eyes with cleverly applied makeup, long false eyelashes and wigs that often carefully curled over her cut cheekbones. By 1966 Diana’s personal style was significantly hipper than the other Supremes—an article in the Chicago Tribune (March 20, 1966) details her “giant celebrity sunglasses, her short hair piled with false lovelocks and artificial flowers” and “tall black suede boots, black fox-trimmed coat.” Though she did not leave the group until 1970, her personal style continued to evolve outside of their performances as she began to experiment with a number of other aesthetics—including pairing a wild Afro with hippie-inspired clothes and emphasizing her petite-size with an urchin-cut and boy’s clothes.
“Throughout her career, Ross emphasized her delicate face and huge almond eyes with cleverly applied makeup, long false eyelashes and wigs that often carefully curled over her cut cheekbones.”
In 1972 her first movie, Lady Sings the Blues, was released in which she portrayed Billie Holiday with a depth and maturity that surprised the critics. For the period surrounding the film’s development, production and release, Ross took on a sleek 1940s chanteuse-inspired look styled by the movie’s costume designers, Mackie and Ray Aghayan—all slinky satin or jersey dresses and voluminous curls. Mackie designed two ensembles for Ross to wear to the 1973 Academy Awards, including an untraditional three-piece silver-gray satin suit (more similar to the outfits worn by her protégés, the Jackson 5) and a black chiffon gown more in keeping with her current femme-fatale image. Continuing her lifelong passion for fashion, in her second film, Mahogany (1975), Diana chose to design the totally fabulous costumes herself—encompassing a variety of styles from avant-garde and Space Age to elegant 1940s. The story of an aspiring fashion designer-turned-model, Mahogany includes several now legendary runway and photo shoot sequences (a definite feast for the eyes).
“I wear clothes to match my moods. Each day, there’s something different I would like to make come out.” Harper’s Bazaar, April 1971
Moving with the times, by the late 1970s Ross had shifted her music and look to disco. “Love Hangover” was a massive hit in 1976, and following her divorce in 1977 she became a frequent visitor to Studio 54—all the while clad in skin-tight jeans, cut-off shirts and more Mackie sequins. Ross continued her streak of pop hits into the 1980s, dressed often in Norma Kamali and Galanos satin and beaded evening gowns for both her public and private lives—Harper’s Bazaar (September 1985) remarked that she was “almost as well known for her dramatic fashion style as for her voice.”
In the 1990s for the most part she moved away from the heavy drapery and long sleeves of the previous decade to a more body-conscious silhouette, favoring spaghetti straps and mini skirts. In the decades since she has played on her “Diva” image by wearing voluminous capes, feathers and beaded gowns that reference her over-the-top styles of previous decades—many designed by her longtime collaborator, Bob Mackie. Having sold more than 100 million records worldwide, Ross is well-deserving of Billboard’s title of "Female Entertainer of the [20th] Century" and of her place as one of the most aesthetically inspiring musical divas.
Words by The Editors and Laura McLaws Helms.