By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2020. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book
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As a child, Yoko Ono was very well dressed by her elegant mother Isoko, who descended from one of the wealthiest families in Japan. She was mostly dressed in western clothing during her childhood in Tokyo. She even won a Shirley Temple lookalike contest as a toddler in 1935!
Yoko was a fashion rebel. She never dressed in a traditionally feminine way. As an androgynous avant-garde artist in the late 1950s/ early 1960s, Yoko was usually shrouded in black loose-fitting sweaters with pants. Black was Beatnik cool, and you could also hide behind it. Bags (not handbags, but actual black bags) were her refuge. They weren’t worn but were instead for hiding inside to effect total communication. This was her artwork, Bagism. Then, out came the scissors for Cut Piece, Yoko’s event in which she wore her best clothing for audience members to cut away pieces and take with them. For the London performance, her dress was from Biba.
In another cool photo shoot, the artist posed with the posters (which she hand-lettered on newsprint) for her performance at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1962 (A Grapefruit in the World of Park).
Photographed amongst her artwork (objects and furniture painted white and cut in half) for her Half-A-Wind show at Lisson gallery in 1967, Yoko is dressed entirely in black against a pure white background. The camera loves her. Clay Perry’s photo session results in an ultra-hip offbeat fashion shoot.
Photos by Clay Perry.
In the first most widely seen image of Yoko, she is wearing her birthday suit. On the cover of her first recording with John Lennon, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, the naked couple shocked the world with the first nude selfie. The fashion police banned the album, putting it in a brown paper covering before it could be sold in shops, most of which refused to stock it.
Yoko took her fashion sense up a notch after meeting John. It was his suggestion that they coordinate their look. John abandoned his psychedelic wardrobe. Totally in love, the couple merged and fused their identities. John was becoming a conceptual artist, and Yoko was becoming a rock star! Even their faces began to resemble each other.
“She’s me in drag.”
– John to David Wigg, June 1969
At first, the couple shared the same tattered black and brown fur coats, both of them always wearing sneakers. Photo @ Kenwood: Susan Wood
Ethan Russell captured John and Yoko as black-caped crusaders with their cat in 1968 at John’s house, Kenwood.
“Look, they had the greatest love story of the 20th century. At a time of enormous sexism and racism, they managed to block it all out and create their own universe. That’s what I wanted to show with my photographs. It was just the three of us and the cat – that’s as intimate as it gets.”
– Ethan Russell, The Guardian Feb. 2019
Russell also took a lovely photo of Yoko in the EMI canteen at Abbey Road.
“I love that shot because I think if nothing else, it sort of shows you how John could fall in love with her. Because she was a real beauty if you could see it. Most people couldn’t see it. There was some misogyny and racism and Beatles fear… I think John liked me because I took good pictures of his girlfriend.”
– Ethan Russell to Evalena Labayen, Interview magazine December 12, 2019
Photos: Ethan Russell
John and Yoko did not have a team of stylists. Yoko wore no makeup, a testament to her natural beauty. The Lennons wore some clothing from the Apple boutique. They managed to achieve iconic looks that were transcendent, classic and timeless. Black gave way to white – the color of surrender. White is also the primary color of Yoko’s artworks. They released hundreds of white balloons into the air at their You Are Here exhibition at Robert Fraser gallery in 1967.
Their most stunning outfits – several matching white suits – were sexy, slim, glamourous and groovy masterpieces by bespoke tailors Edward Sexton and Tommy Nutter. This groundbreaking pair of meticulous craftsmen opened their cutting-edge shop Nutters of Savile Row in February 1969). Sexton had dressed The Beatles in their ‘Teddy boy’ suits for the film A Hard Day’s Night. Nutters also fitted Mick and Bianca Jagger in iconic white suits, as well as making suits from outrageous fabrics for Elton John and many other superstars and glitterati.
John and Yoko managed to remain colorful and exuberant in their monochromatic existence, emitting a rainbow of positivity and ideas for a peaceful future. They were always on the go – as if in a flickering black and white movie – as bold as their own newspaper print ads, billboards and posters; War Is Over! (If You Want it). Pants suits with men’s jackets became Yoko’s staple. Her long black hair had always been thick, straight and flowing – just like John’s auburn locks were then – spectacularly blowing in the wind.
Yoko’s most notable outfit was worn on the day of her wedding to John in Gibraltar on March 20, 1969 – the first day of Spring. An ultra-cool, chic white knit skirt set that she bought in Paris (worn with knee socks and Keds sneakers) was accessorized with a large-brimmed white hat and Linda Farrow shades. Farrow founded the first luxury eyewear label in 1970, the first to treat sunglasses as fashion. The London brand was re-launched in 2003 by Farrow’s son.
John drew a wedding ring on Yoko’s finger with a pen, as her gold band was being re- sized. John matched his bride in a white Pierre Cardin jacket and corduory pants. His jacket and Yoko’s skirt were displayed at the Double Fantasy exhibition in Liverpool (2018) and in Tokyo (2020).
Photos: David Nutter
In the Middle of a Cloud…
John and Yoko always made an entrance in their most dramatic accessory. We could always see them riding in on a cloud, in their dream machine – a beautiful white Rolls Royce. A black 1965 Phantom V Rolls Royce was purchased by John in 1968 and ordered to be painted white. The interior was fitted with white carpeting, a white telephone and a turntable. The car is featured in their photo shoot at Kenwood with Susan Wood. It was brought to Holland to whisk them to the Amsterdam Hilton for their grand arrival at the first Bed-In for Peace. The car was a superstar itself, with its interior and exterior featured in the popular film Georgy Girl (when it was still black). John later loaned it to film director Nicholas Roeg in 1968 for the filming of Performancestarring Mick Jagger. John eventually sold the car to manager Allen Klein.
Note: This was after John commissioned his previous Rolls, (an entirely black 1964 Mulliner Park Ward Phantom V) to be painted in yellow in the style of a gypsy wagon in 1967.
White pajamas and a nightgown were all the rage for the Lennons’ honeymoon Bed Ins in May 1969, one in Amsterdam (looking angelic and stylishly surrounded by white tulips) and another in Montreal. For plane trips to Vienna and Paris, Yoko’s white belted jacket, mini skirt and knee-high boots turned heads as the couple joyfully danced through airports in their wedded bliss. They were always rocking a peace sign.
Photos: Govert De Roos / Gerry Deiter / David Nutter
Yoko wore groovy headbands to cover the scar on her forehead from a car accident in Scotland during a family holiday in July 1969 with John and their children from previous marriages. Some of her clothing that summer was gifted by her friend Jill Richter.
In January 1970, John and Yoko suddenly cropped their hair short in Denmark, without concern for fashion. This was so that they could travel unrecognized, but it did not fool anyone. To make the hair useful, they auctioned it to benefit accused murderer Michael X, believing he was innocent. (He was later convicted).
At the London signings for the second printing of her book Grapefruit in 1971, Yoko wears a lovely floral-patterned hot-pants suit with black stockings and a choker necklace. Her hair is shoulder-length, beneath a beret – a nice French twist.
A cigarette, sometimes in an elegant holder (influenced by Cruella De Vil or by Holly Golightly?) accentuated her cool mystique. As she is petite, Yoko’s charisma and seriousness were always undercut. Her simple, attractive style made her more highly visible.
In the Imagine film (1971) John sings the title song with Yoko beside him at the white piano in the bright white room at their home Tittenhurst Park in Ascot. She wears a long white dress and a beaded headband. At the end of the song, they share a sweet kiss and a smile. Yoko slowly descends a long staircase in hot-pants, rocking an opera-length cigarette holder, with her haunting song ‘Mrs. Lennon’ as the soundtrack. She also wears mod bubble rings over black elbow-length evening gloves. In a photo shoot with David Bailey, Yoko is resplendent in ostrich feathers and a beret with a fan blowing her hair.
On the back cover of her 1971 album Fly, she wears seamed stockings and clear plastic high heeled shoes with a flowered pattern on the heel, shot in sepia tone.
Soon, John and Yoko’s matching styles morphed into rebel chic. John could often be seen wearing a YOKO ONO t-shirt. They wore army helmets with the kanji for ‘Han’ (Rebellion) on their single sleeve for ‘Power to the People’ / ‘Touch Me’.
Yoko’s hottest outfit was a black blouse with black leather hot pants and knee-high boots, resplendent with a belt and matching bullet bracelet made from rounds of ammunition. This was accessorized with a wonderful black bolero hat with a satin band (John had a matching one) from the Fly / Imagine photos session by Raeanne Rubenstein.
Upon their move to New York City in 1971, John’s U.S. Army ensemble with cowboy boots and cap complemented Yoko’s hot pants and beret. They were true comrades. The couple’s revolutionary look manifested John’s lyrics as they posed near the Statue of Liberty with raised fists. ‘”Power to the People!”
Photo: Iain Macmillan
Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Super Band previewed songs from her album Feeling The Space by playing a week-long residency (October 23 – 28, 1973) at Kenny’s Castaways in New York City. Yoko performed twelve (not only sold-out but over-crowded) shows. Although she looked stunning all in black, wearing velvet hot pants with fabulous over-the-knee boots, the outfit was worn in mockery of men’s expectation that a woman wearing such a thing should be demure. The crowds – mostly men, clamored for her autograph after each show. Photos: Bob Gruen
In August 1974 Yoko was an angel in white chiffon, descending the steps of the plane to a welcoming crowd in Tokyo to start her tour of Japan. She wore all white onstage as well. Photos: Bob Gruen.
On the cover of Double Fantasy, in 1980, the close-up photo of John and Yoko by Kishin Shinoyama disregards fashion. All that is visible is their love, their kiss and the matching diamond necklace that John bought for their anniversary.
A serene John and Yoko posed in kimono for Allan Tannenbaum in November 1980.
Also in 1980 came the Porsche by Carrera shades, purchased on a shopping trip with John just before his death. He seemed to have a strange premonition that Yoko would need them to hide behind in the near future. He urged her to buy them. We rarely saw her eyes after that. Following Japanese tradition, Yoko cut off 30 inches of her hair to mark the first anniversary of John’s death. Her white fur coat could not ward off the chill of that winter of devastating loss.
White and black gowns were worn to various ceremonies and galas, along with some makeup. Yoko was stunning in 1982 while tearfully accepting the Grammy award for Double Fantasy after John’s death, all in white, with little Sean by her side.
The mid- 1980s brought oversized jacket and pants suits for her Starpeace tour, and sometimes men’s bowling shirts. Well, what were YOU wearing in the 80s? There was a cool stylized video shot on Wall Street for her song ‘Hell In Paradise’.
Yoko continued to wear many hats (figuratively and literally) large and small, fedoras, trilbies and caps through the decades. Her signature look, since the 90s has been an all-black – tight fitting ensemble, accenting her tiny waist; jeans with a very low cut blouse under a vest, with rubber platform shoes or sneakers, cropped hair and of course, shades of all different shapes. Her minimalist nature keeps her uniformly in black or in white. This is a shared tactic of the Queen of England in her matching solid outfits – from head to toe, including her pocketbook – so that she can be visible from afar.
Yoko appears on the cover of her 2001 album Blueprint for a Sunrise with her younger face (an Iain Macmillan shot from 1971 which also appears on the Rising album cover in 1995). She is portraying the defiant and powerful Tz’u-hsi, Empress of China with whom she sympathizes and identifies for also being called a ‘Dragon Lady’ – a derogatory term for a strong woman. The portrait is based on a 1905 oil painting of the empress by Hubert Vos.
In 2006, Vogue Japan did a feature with models portraying Yoko’s style, posing with recreations of her artworks.
Design house Threeasfour incorporated Yoko’s Franklin Summer drawings into material for their Spring-Summer 2010 ready-to-wear collection. Their fashion show theme was a recreation of Cut Piece.
Yoko won a Woman of the Year award from the U.K. fashion magazine Glamour in June 2010.
“I was delighted. When I get a music award, I think, ‘OK, that’s something I’ve done,
I get it.’
But Glamour, my God, I didn’t think I had glamour! Wow.”
– Yoko, The Gentlewoman, Issue No. 2 Autumn & Winter 2010
A ring, replicating Yoko’s 1967 work Three Spoons was produced in 750 kt. gold in 1990. Yoko collaborated with Swarovski Elements in 2012 to create a range of crystal key pendants inspired by her Glass Keys to Open The sky. The collection is called Unlocking the Door to a Better Life.
In her ‘Bad Dancer’ video in 2013 at age 80 Yoko is back in hot pants, this time with a top hat – and dancing in shorts with her still gorgeous legs. She also posed for Annie Liebovitz in 2015 for the 2016 Pirelli calendar.
A silent black and white film of Yoko called The Story of My Long Life was shot by Karl Lagerfeld for his Little Black Jacket exhibition in 2012. The black jacket is an iconic wardrobe piece in the fashion world. Lagerfeld’s show featured his celebrity photos including Yoko, Sarah Jessica Parker and Lady Gaga – all wearing Chanel’s little black jacket. The movie has a retro quality reminiscent of a Charlie Chaplin film, with a narrow vertical aspect ratio. It features Yoko in a black suit and hat (actually resembling Chaplin) simply dancing. The film has a stop-motion aspect. It is delightful, uplifting and a bit surreal.
Watch the short Lagerfeld film:
In April 2015 to celebrate her One Woman Show at the Museum of Modern Art, W magazine featured a fashion spread with Cut Piece in reverse; Yoko cutting the clothing of a model.
Upon meeting Yoko, one hardly notices what she is wearing. Her warmth, her smile and the twinkle in her eyes supersede the realm of fashion. After all, perceptions of beauty are all in the mind.
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Chicago Tribune July 27, 2016
Q: Looking back over a very stylish life, what was a favorite look?
A: OK … Cut Piece? I’m just joking.
My true style, probably as anybody else’s, isn’t known to the public so much. It’s just something that your family enjoys or shares. And that’s how it is, and that’s good.
Q: How would you describe your personal style?
A: Well, it’s just convenient, that’s all. I’m not very self-indulgent, so elaborate. It’s very time-consuming to think about it.
The way that hats came into my life is when I was like 4 years old, my parents always said, “Make sure that your hat and shoes work together.” When I was a very little girl, I was always wearing a hat. And glasses … I’m fascinated by the fact that you can have two or three faces.
Q: Does style matter?
A: Well it doesn’t personally matter so much, but I just love it; it’s fun to have a personal touch in your life.
Q: What do you put on that makes you feel the most like yourself?
A: Everything that I put on, you know, is a message of some sort.
Q: What’s one thing that people don’t know about you?
A: Well, who knows? There are some things I don’t even know about myself, so together we’ll discover it.