Friday, January 18, 2008

ABBA: Est Modus in Rebus

Syllogistically, a cultural anthropologist who also happens to be a student of fashion will find plenty to deduce from the array of secondhand clothing at San Francisco's Wasteland. San Francisco was the launch pad for one of the biggest cultural movements of the 20th century and Haight Street was its epicenter.

Perhaps because San Francisco so strongly espoused freedom of personal expression, its thrift shops contain an uncommon array of fashion's most momentous--if awkward-- trends. Creative articulation may never again reach the heights of 1967, but judging from Wasteland's eclectic range of thrift apparel the citizen of San Francisco had a voracious appetite for novelty.

The cultural anthropologist on a fact-finding mission might discover men's belted sweaters, Nehru jackets, Afghan coats, and leg warmers. And maxi skirts, caftans, and a wet-look raincoat. From these relics, the anthropologist can parse civilization and conclude that fashion-wise, we were a happily oblivious culture. Throw in a harvest gold refrigerator and a copy of I'm Okay, You're Okay and the anthropologist may get the impression that we were an obtuse one as well.

For unknown reasons, nearly all of these entropic trends conjoined in the closet of the Swedish supergroup ABBA, a band that lived a world away from San Francisco but which expressed the joyful randomness of fashion crazes better than any other. ABBA's wardrobe singularly expressed an Orwellian truth: Bad fashion is a revolutionary act in the face of a universal deceit.

No other musical group welcomed fashion trends the way ABBA did. In a synergistic relationship that has yet to be equaled, ABBA and the seventies embraced each other like long lost lovers. Beginning with their win at the Eurovision song contest in 1974, ABBA costumed themselves in gauchos, overalls, platforms, t-shirt dresses, western wear, Lycra, and jumpsuits. So reflective were their costumes of the latest fads that by wearing all of them simultaneously they nearly reflected an alternate reality.

With the exception of Frida Lyngstad's vaguely western outfit, ABBA's Eurovision stagewear was inspired by that of the British glam group Slade. Frida's embroidered shirt and tattersall skirt are at odds with the costumes of the other three bandmembers, who wear satin knickerbockers, satin shirts, and platform boots. Although incongruous, Frida's shirt was an important fashion statement in and of itself. A third trend is the spaceman styling worn by Björn Ulvaeus, a look that would later be perfected by Ace Frehley of KISS. Benny Andersson's military jacket is pure Sgt. Pepper.

Following the Eurovision win, ABBA's costuming became more cohesive. Sometimes, color would be the unifying factor where theme or unity had been sacrificed. The picture to the left displays one of the myriad ways in which ABBA jumbled trends. While the women are similarly costumed, the likeness of the men's costumes stops at the puff-sleeved shirts. Ulvaeus wears one of the most execrable pieces of apparel in fashion history and Andersson anticipates the chest-bearing mechanic's uniform of New Wave.

ABBA's facile appropriation of the worst of 1970s style cemented them a place in history as the band that couldn't decipher fashion fault codes. This ineptitude became part of their charm and amplified the band's international appeal, especially in countries that were hungry for the latest in trendy western apparel. Through a Swedish filter, ABBA's idiomatic stagewear became the middle course by which the latest trends multiply transcended borders.

Link: Waterloo, winning the 1974 Eurovision song contest at the Brighton (UK) Dome.

Wasteland, 1660 Haight Street, San Francisco, CA


bronwyn said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I love your sentence about ABBA embracing the seventies like long lost lovers - so very well put. I love ABBA, their OTT fashion style included and I love their happy feel good music and marvelous bubble gum pop tunes. I think they were genius at coming up with catchy tunes. Well written!!!

WendyB said...

Dude...who had costumes like ABBA? They were in a class of their own. I remember marveling over the women's hair too.
Come say hi to me here:

Suzanna Mars said...

WB, the hair (Frida's) is worthy of separate remark. That was the phenomenon of the bad perm--not the groovy afro perm that so many white chicks so wrongly appropriated, but the middle-aged-matron perm that my mother wore. And it made Frida look 20 years older, as did the frost job and then later the red.

Miss Woo said...

I'm not a fan of Abba, though I think I know the majority of their songs and can sing along to all the lyrics (okay, so maybe I'm a little bit of a fan of Abba)

And am I weird to like the guy's costumes more than the girls? I really dig those high waisted flairs.

WendyB said...

Was Agnetha the one who married her stalker? I'm becoming obsessed with over-the-knee white boots due to the photo you posted.

Suzanna Mars said...

And if anyone can bring back white vinyl over-the-knee boots it will be our very intrepid WB. If I tried it, I'd get arrested. But then again, I live on a mountain.

I don't know the answer to your question, nor can I find any information to confirm it. Perhaps someone else will weigh in.

Thomas said...

Momentous If Awkward Trends would make an excellent band name. I want to start a band just to use it.

Suzanna Mars said...

Thomas, that is a fabulous idea and one worth pursuing. You are the man to put it together. And your writing tells me that you would fully grasp the premise behind the name and would become a marvelous songwriter and overnight sensation. Think of what could be done!

My favorite band name ever is Icky Boyfriends. Didn't matter if they could play or not, or how amateur their posters were. The name is the message. It's everything. So glad to see you understand that!

Jen (MahaloFashion) said...

ABBA IS BACK! yay! Great post!

Heather said...

"So reflective were their costumes of the latest fads that by wearing all of them simultaneously they nearly reflected an alternate reality."

I never thought of it, but so true.

Stephanie said...

I love this! I've been listening to ABBA music since I was born, but I kind of missed their actual performances as I was born in the 90s. Now that I've seen the costumes, I'm a bit disappointed I did, haha.