Barbra Streisand Talks Style, Something She’s Had Long Before The Advent Of The Celebrity Stylist

By Ruth La Ferla
New York Times
Barbra Streisand in the 1960s. Photo / Getty Images

“I looked different, I dressed different,” the multi-hyphenate star said in her first interview on fashion.

She flirted with Marlon Brando and even Prince Charles. She has been romantically linked with a succession of Hollywood hunks — think Warren Beatty and Ryan O’Neal.

But there are no steamy

Growing up, this self-proclaimed “skinny marink” from Brooklyn, New York, cherished her burgundy sweater with wooden buttons that “set her apart from the other kids on her first day at camp.”

Her near-fetishistic recall propels her into her teens, when every dollar she earned babysitting or working as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant went toward clothes. There was, in particular, a lace-trimmed skirt and top printed with tiny pink-and-white checks with shoes to match — “low cut pink flats that showed a bit of my toes.”

Multihyphenate Barbra Streisand as performer Fanny Brice in the musical film 'Funny Girl', 1968.  Photo / Getty Images
Multihyphenate Barbra Streisand as performer Fanny Brice in the musical film 'Funny Girl', 1968. Photo / Getty Images

Long before the advent of the celebrity stylist, Streisand, 81, learned to fashion her image seemingly on the premise that if she couldn’t trade on her features to project glamour and obvious sex appeal, she could count on her special brew of off-centre panache.

“I guess I looked different, I dressed different,” Streisand said in an email last week, part of a rare interview, her first to be focused solely on fashion. “I never just went with the style of the day. I had other images in my head. I was inspired by period films, paintings in museums and those fabulous Mucha posters of Sarah Bernhardt that I first saw when I was a teenager.”

A “nice Jewish girl” from Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighbourhood, she was achingly aware of her otherness. “No one would have looked at me and thought, ‘That girl should be a movie star,’” she writes in her memoir. “I have a small head, a crooked nose, my mouth is too big, and my eyes are too small. Did I even think I was sexy? No.”

But instead of masking that difference, she made the most of it, insistently downplaying her sexuality. In her early days, she performed in boyish middy shirts, quaint Victorian frippery straight from the thrift shop and a masculine-feminine hybrid of men’s tweeds and filmy tie-front blouses.

For her 1960 debut at Bon Soir, a piano bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, she wore what she described in the interview as “a high-necked, long-sleeved Persian vest from the turn of the century embroidered with silver thread, over a simple black dress.”

On her second night, she wafted to the stage in a Victorian combing jacket that she threaded with pink satin ribbon to match the 1920s pink satin shoes that, as she now recalls, “cost only $3 at the thrift shop.”

The point was, she said: “I didn’t relate to the conventional kind of gown most nightclub singers wore. Instead, I took a menswear fabric — a black-and-white herringbone tweed — and designed a vest, which I wore with a white chiffon blouse and a matching tweed skirt, floor-length with a slit up the side, and lined in red. I’ve been wearing a version of that suit ever since.”

Barbra Streisand with the Oscar she won for Best Actress in 'Funny Girl'. That same year (1969) Katharine Hepburn also won Best Actress, a rare split decision. Photo / Getty Images
Barbra Streisand with the Oscar she won for Best Actress in 'Funny Girl'. That same year (1969) Katharine Hepburn also won Best Actress, a rare split decision. Photo / Getty Images

Streisand’s striking originality impressed Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. “She saw something in me, when other people were making jokes,” Streisand writes in her memoir. “She spoke of me as a fashion icon, long before I imagined I’d ever make the best-dressed list.” (She did make the list, twice.)

She did her best to live up to that image, perching in the front row at Chanel wearing a jaguar coat and matching pillbox, and taking to the stage in her signature Empire gowns.

“I’ve always loved that style, with a high waist and a fall of fabric to the floor,” she said last week. “It suited my body and gave me room to breathe when I sang.”

As her fame grew, so did her polish, along with a confidence matched only by her chutzpah. An admitted obsessive, she mined her own closet for many of her film roles, The Way We Were and The Prince of Tides, among them.

She presumed to sketch her own custom designs for Bill Blass, Arnold Scaasi and their vaunted ilk. For her 1998 wedding to actor James Brolin (yes, they are still a couple), she directed her friend Donna Karan to drape her in an Empire dress, though Karan talked her into a lacy tulle confection that pooled at her feet.

Overbearing? Nit-picky? Streisand has heard it all. “Okay, so maybe I was a little hands-on,” she writes in the memoir.

She was a relentless perfectionist, but there were gaffes — not least an infamous wardrobe malfunction. Much to her horror, the glittery Scaasi pantsuit she wore to claim her first Oscar in 1969 proved transparent under the stage lights.

And she weathered some barbs. When she appeared at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural gala in a pinstripe suit, a vest that showed off her bosom and a long skirt seductively slit at the side, one writer carped in The New York Times that her ensemble sent a “disturbing signal” and a “coy mixed message.”

Barbra Streisand in a long collared tunic,1968. Photo / Getty Images
Barbra Streisand in a long collared tunic,1968. Photo / Getty Images

Streisand is still miffed. “I thought that writer was reading a lot into that outfit, and it said more about her than about me,” she said over email. “Like I wrote in my book, ‘Why can’t women be accomplished and attractive, strong and sensitive, intelligent and sensual?’”

And dress their age? That concept eludes her. “People should express themselves and wear whatever they feel on any given day,” she said. “And that has nothing to do with age.”

In her interview, Streisand recalled that several years ago she had suggested posing for a W cover in nothing but a fresh white shirt “and no pants.” “Just legs,” she said. Early in her career, she had balked at such overt expressions of her sensuality. “I was too afraid to be seen that way at that time,” she said. “Now I’m too old to care.”

But never too old to give up on fashion or, for that matter, to stop amassing treasures. Streisand owns film costumes, a Fortuny gown, vintage clothes and antique dolls.

“Some of those dolls are 100 years old,” she said. “Once in a while they need a new pair of shoes, don’t they?” She houses many of those artifacts in a subterranean mall at her Malibu estate.

They play their part in a narrative that has taken her a long way from home. The oddball from Brooklyn who refused to get rid of the bump on her nose has morphed into a swan. As one must.

“We all grew up on fairy tales,” Streisand writes. “Who doesn’t love a Cinderella story?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. My Name Is Barbra by Barbra Streisand (Century, $85) is out now.

Written by: Ruth La Ferla


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