Cher changed the music and fashion industry for women as she embodied female autonomy in a male dominated world. Her fashion and music changed as her life evolved, from the 1960’s feminine ideal to the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s, to a world with independent women in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Cher’s music documented women’s road to independence, and her fashion inspired women of all ethnicities to be themselves and to take control of their own lives.
1962-1965 Classic Mod
Cher’s earliest recordings were with the famous producer Phil Spector whom she was introduced to by her much older boyfriend Sonny Bono. She served as a backup singer on some of his biggest hits such as “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.” She also released her first single “Ringo I Love You,” under the name Bonnie Jo Mason with Spector.
The film Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor had just been released in 1963 and Sonny and Cher were looking to start a group. They took inspiration from the film and called themselves Cesar and Cleo. Cher adopted Cleopatra like eyeliner and a haircut which became an iconic look for the 1960’s. During this time Cher’s style reflected what was popular in the media sporting short mod dresses and black and white patterned clothing. Cher stood out during this time as there were no other women on television that embodied her style. Cher was of Armenian and Cherokee descent with long dark hair, deep brown eyes, and a low voice. Puffed up curvy blondes with big hair and high pitched voices were the fashion standard of the moment and Cher was an alien in contrast.
1965-1967 Bohemian Originality
Cesar and Cleo began to call themselves Sonny and Cher and released their hit song “I Got You, Babe” in 1965. With the release of the song, Sonny and Cher Bono rocketed into success. With Sonny calling the shots and writing the songs, Cher was the face and personality of the act. The two pretended they were married as they thought it would make the act more marketable. The two performed an unofficial wedding ceremony in a hotel room in Tijuana. Sonny and Cher Bono stepped onto the scene sporting fur vests and bell bottoms, popularizing otherwise underground fashion trends. The duo was considered an unusual act as the public thought they looked weird. Cher’s look was far less feminine than any other women in the industry at the time. She was tall, thin, and wore unisex pants that matched Sonny’s. Her bohemian originality was the start of her influence on fashion.
1971 The Glamour of Television
The Sonny and Cher comedy hour aired its first episode in 1971, launching Cher’s fashion iconism. Designer Bob Mackie was brought on board to create costumes for Cher on the new television show. His exotic and over the top designs became a fixation and staple of the show. Cher’s outfits would be the talk of the week across America and sparked many trends during the 1970s. NBC gave the show a whopping $10,000 per episode to dress Cher, an extravagant expense for a television show at the time.
With Cher’s new found image, she became a pioneer in both the world of style and women’s rights. In the early 1970s a woman was not allowed to show her belly button on TV. Cher broke that barrier, coming out in scantily clad beaded costumes. She carved out a new path and combated censorship. She represented a smart, independent, working, liberated, mother who was changing America’s ideals of womanhood with her witty and sassy comedic lines.
1973 The Independence of Disco
The stress of television eventually split Sonny and Cher. They lived in the same house for a good while but in separate wings of their vast mansion in Beverly Hills California. She legally changed her name to simply Cher with no last name attached. Cher began to gain independence with her separation from Sonny and decided it was time to go out on her own in the music industry.
Cher became a catalyst for a lot of change in the female community at the time. She was a pioneer and leader of the sexual revolution which lasted from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. Cher was making it okay for women to be sexual with her music, fashion, and style of dancing. She separated from men in the music industry controlling her life and her art, and the fashion reflected that. Cher transitioned into the disco era with dramatic outfits made for dancing, sporting low cut pants suits, roller-skates, and big hair. She was always seen as a weirdo in the industry, and disco was music for weirdos – a perfect match.
1979’s Punk Rock Diva
Cher was a 40-year-old woman when she released her most successful album titled Prisoner. With this album came new fashion. Cher was as naked as ever. She took the punk rock styles that were popular going into the 80’s and turned them glamorous. She glamorized fishnets and ripped jeans and was more confident than ever. Adorning the masculine looks with feminine accessories and sparkly beading. The punk rock diva era of Cher shows the full transition into women’s empowerment that finally came to be in the 1980s. Punk rock was a male dominated industry that Cher made feminine, sexual, and outspoken.
1987-1992 Hollywood Actress
During these years Cher became one of the most critically acclaimed and talented actresses of the time. A feat that Cher had been long awaiting. Her lifelong passion and dream was to be an actress as singing was something she never felt she was good at. Of course, her red carpet style was unusually skimpy, unusually glamorous, and unusually sparkly. Her style represented more sophistication than it had in previous years as she was entering a more serious profession. This time is considered the height of her career as during this time she released a chart topping album, and won an Oscar, all while dating multiple men who were half her age.
Despite Sonny and Cher’s rocky relationship and marriage, the two remained lifelong friends. With the death of Sonny Bono in 1998, Cher was devastated and released yet another chart topping album titled “Believe.” At age 62, Cher released a quadruple platinum album with a number one song in more than 23 countries. Her album was a culmination of all her previous musical endeavors along with classic recreations of fashion from the Sonny and Cher show. The fashion that came with this album were more extravagant and glamorous than ever. Cher was draped in beads and fringe, and did not mind showing a nipple or two.
With the release of Believe, the world saw Cher go full circle with her music and personal life. She was free from the chains of male dominance but still mourned Sonny, a man who had given her everything. The fact that Cher stays so relevant to so many generations is a feat very few artists have accomplished.
With Cher’s most recent music and performances, she kills the stigma that women are only beautiful to a certain age. She still is wearing hardly any clothing in her 70s today.
She is a force to be reckoned with – and an inspiration.
by Miranda Zipse
**Featured image photographed by Douglas Kirkland, 1974.