Growing up in the Mississippi Delta gave Bobbie Gentry a deeply rooted sense of place which she channelled into her lyrics and music. What perhaps is less documented is her time as a young model in California. Work like this may be dismissed by some as inconsequential or superficial even but for Bobbie this must have given her some insight into how to use her own image for maximum effect. In her songwriting Gentry created characters and painted pictures of Southern life. She extended this attention to detail by designing many of the clothes she wore for her album covers and live shows. Gentry’s personal beauty and style helped to sell her music, long before social media and branding ever was even thought of.
Much like how Tammy Wynette kept her beautician’s licence in case her career went south, Gentry had a back up plan to design and sell burlap dresses if singing didn’t work out. As it happened she was actually able to combine her love of music and fashion into one successful career.
Bobbie’s debut album Ode to Billie Joe had a simple stripped back sound and her fashion choices for the cover shoot reflected this. She wore a simple t shirt, jeans and left her feet bare – giving the impression she was idly sitting on her front porch or maybe back from casually walking around the farm. This image (and the one for Time magazine of her walking alone across Tallahatchie bridge) helped to launch her as a mysterious southern girl (the fact she’d been living in California for so long was lost among the mythology).
Look closely at the picture and you will see her hair and make up are actually styled within an inch of their life. Big hair, along with copious amounts of eyeliner and false lashes became her signature, creating a sixties glamour-puss look that was groundbreaking in conservative country music.
Gentry’s style evolved and she eventually became known for wearing fashionable pantsuits. In fact she designed the iconic red suit seen on the cover of her album Local Gentry. She went on to wear similar suits on the cover of Touch Em With Love and the duets album with Glen Campbell.
The cover of ‘Fancy’ lived up to the name with Gentry dressed as the titular character – a seductive siren in red, surrounded by expensive looking furnishings. Album producer Rick Hall said, ‘She was so artistic about every decision, from selecting the band to the album cover, which she conceived herself – she was what we describe in the business as ‘the complete package’. Gentry’s tight control of her image helped to make her an icon, just as her disappearing act would eventually create the alluring enigma that she has become.
Patchwork, her final album, replaced the sultry look with something more homespun. Her dress was long, the skirt quilted. Her hair was still piled high on her head and the make up dramatic but it was a marked move away from the look of ‘Fancy’. The picture is said to have been painted by Gentry herself. Musically the album lived up to its name with a combination of different styles. It may not have been a commercial success but the critics loved it and Gentry was proud to finally be given an official production credit.
Bobbie spent the final stage of her career in Las Vegas and became one the biggest draws of the 70s. She designed her own costumes for the Vegas shows – these became more and more ambitious as she began to rely less on her own songs in favour of elaborate skits and performances of classic and contemporary songs. Bobbie spoke of this time in a rare interview:
I write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing. I’m completely responsible for it. It’s totally my own from inception to performance. I originally produced “Ode To Billie Joe” and most of my other records, but a woman doesn’t stand much chance in a recording studio. A staff producer’s name was nearly always put on the records.
She was ahead of her time in terms of producing her own records, and was also one of the first singer songwriters to connect with a fashion line, becoming a spokesperson for brand Paraphernalia. Gentry pioneered making these connections to the fashion world that are commonplace for artists in the industry today.
Last year saw the release of the wonderful boxset of Gentry’s work ‘The Girl From Chickasaw County’. For those fans of her music it is a comprehensive collection without parallel, showing the diverse and pioneering work she did as a songwriter, performer and producer. The boxset is also a thing of beauty, much like its subject.
Firstly the cover art is drawn by Vogue artist, David Downton. In his picture of Bobbie he captures the spirt in her eyes and shifting colours create just that slightly abstract edge. Like Gentry herself, the image is not quite as simple a portrait as it seems on first glance.
The box set comes with a stunning book filled with pictures of Bobbie’s life and career so you can trace her evolving style. The boxset compiler Andrew Batt also writes about Gentry’s career with illuminating insight. An added bonus is the selection of postcards included in the boxset, showcasing Gentry’s many famous looks.
The boxset has helped to promote Gentry’s music, along with the release of Mercury Rev’s tribute album to The Delta Sweete. Her style legacy also lives on through artists like Ashley Monroe and of course, Kacey Musgraves. This year at the Grammys Kacey wore a red pantsuit which echoed Gentry’s most famous look. Kacey has also shown Gentry levels of attention to aesthetic detail in the Golden Hour era – using butterflies, fans and rainbows as well as psychedelic imagery to bring her lyrics and cover art to the live show. Her high fashion choices and styling have been deliberate, in order to create an aesthetic of cool country chic.
It seems crazy, considering Gentry is a famous recluse but I’m certain she would have had the most beautiful Instagram ever. Gentry cared about every little detail of how the world saw her so you can imagine her channelling her creativity into social media too, just like Kacey. After all she wasn’t a reluctant star until after she decided to quit the business.
Being gifted with natural beauty was a blessing that Gentry used to her advantage. Her dedication to creating a unique and alluring style made her an inspiring fashion icon. She was indeed the complete package.