Everything about Tina Turner moved.
The singer, who died Wednesday at 83, knew how to wear sequins, tassels, beads. For her entire life — she first performed with her ex-husband, Ike Turner, in the late 1950s, and toured nearly into her 70s — she wore the shortest and most animated dresses, bounding across the stage in clothing that sparkled and shimmied like it was trying to keep up with her.
Light played off every outfit and every texture, emphasising how she couldn’t be limited and how her energy couldn’t be controlled. Turner embodied the freedom of rock ‘n’ roll and R & B — and insisted that sexy clothes could be a show of force.
As soon as she solidified her act with Ike as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, in the early 1960s, she developed her signature: a high-high-highhemline on a dress covered with dangling beads or flashy sequins. Other female pop stars of the time might stand before the microphone like beautiful trophies, poised in silk dresses modelled after stiff Parisian couture, but Tina Turner was there to put on a show. She took her fashion cues from showgirls. Turner had to hypnotise everyone in the audience, and she entranced you by never letting your eyes sit still.
In a grainy video of a 1971 performance of ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ that I’ve probably seen a hundred times, she is tapping her left foot, and somehow her right leg is tapping, too. She throws her head back like this is the most important song she’s ever sung, and the beads at the neck of her see-through crochet dress wobble like they’re in a fearful trance.
Even her backup singers’ hairdos seem to dance. As a warm-up, the Ikettes and Turner do a bit of dancing that’s silly and cool — chicken wings, jazz hands — but the quickness and ease with which they execute the moves make them look like they’re mocking the whole idea of choreography.
It’s why Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger asked her to teach him how to dance. When you watch the way he dominated the stage then, in tight bell-bottoms and sequin jumpsuits, it’s clear it’s all Turner-isms. (Recall the scene in the “Gimme Shelter” documentary when he watches her opening for them and seethes with envy, “It’s nice to have a chick occasionally.”)
Turner’s way of revealing her body showed her superhuman sense of her own might. Turner’s legs were renowned — “Sometimes I think I’m as famous for my legs as much as my voice,” she said last month — but it was about the strength, the motion, the stability of those legs.
That feeling is what made her an inspiration to so many, especially when, in the late 1970s, she split from Ike, then staged her comeback in the ‘80s. The red cowl-neck dress she wore when she wowed at the 1985 Grammys with the statuette-winning ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’, her hair teased big, as if every part of her had finally been set free, remains an indelible moment of fashion and music history, because the ferocity of her clothing supplemented the triumph of her achievements.
Yet even when she just wore jeans, she looked awesome.
Dressing, for Turner, wasn’t about being beautiful. (Though, God, was she beautiful!) It was about her power, her voice, her irrepressible energy.
Unlike other rock star uniforms, Turner’s never aged. It just kept dazzling. Her mixture of rawness and glitz pushed designers to do some of their most fabulous work. She tasked Bob Mackie with slicing outrageous slits into her dresses, so long tentacles of fabric swished around her.
It was like a fashion dare: How much leg can you show? How much soul can you sing? How hard can you dance?
She wore a number of dresses by the sensual avant-gardist Azzedine Alaa, a Paris-based designer who knew that a tight dress wasn’t some sleazy giveaway but a careful art of sculpting fabric around a body to enshrine it as something godlike. She came closer than perhaps any of her peers to articulating through clothes the yearning for independence, rebellion and danger that the music of that time embodied.
When I saw Turner perform on her Twenty Four Seven Tour, in 2000, she was 60, and still wearing those tiny dresses. I was 11, and around that time, I’d seen newly ascendant Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child perform, too. The expanse of Spears’s incredible abdomen — a winking reveal at how hard she was working to give us those two hours of magic — and Beyoncé Knowles’s ability to command attention, even among three identically dressed women, were clearly drawn from Turner’s playbook, and I felt very special that I knew just where the performers were getting their secrets.
Still, Turner was electrifying at another level. That ability to harness some unknown force and hold it in her hands and her hips and her voice for a matter of hours seemed to shudder out of every bead and sequin. They were like sparks flying off an unstoppable machine.