Everything has to be Bigger

David Byrne's Big Suit

AS A PLATFORM FOR performance, the stage lends itself ideally to the pushing of sartorial boundaries to entertain an audience, so its no surprise that most ‘fashion moments’ in have occurred in this medium. From Josephine Baker to David Bowie, fashion and the arts share these seminal and nostalgically symbolic images. With novelty and expression being foremost notions of the stage, to amaze and push boundaries for an audience is only the beginnings of successful entertainment. Moreover fashion actively engages with the stage, as Jean-Paul Goude did with Grace Jones’s ‘One Man Show’ in 1981,1 and inversely fashion uses live music, sometimes dance and theatre on the stage’s linear derivative, the runway. From costume to fashion, there is a powerful partnership between clothing and entertainment.

Worn for the Talking Heads 1984 tour of their album ‘Speaking in Tongues’ lead singer David Byrne’s oversized grey suit has gradually been elevated from cult status to a fashion icon. Vestoj‘s On Material Memory, featured the suit, and we revisit this in a sort of symmetrical reflection on fashion and power. The amplification of this archetypal capitalist structure, is playful: with Byrne’s wobbling torso spotlit on the dark stage, moving to the upbeat electro-pop soundtrack. More than a lasting image, the performance is bodily and thoroughly engaging. Within the setting of the 1980s, financial boom and consumer excess, the image sharply reflects its cultural climate. Simultaneously Byrne’s performance parodies the post-punk era, and the over-intellectualised seriousness of rock music left over from the 1970s. As he told Ganda Suthivarakom in Vestoj: ‘Of course the people who complain about wearing a uniform the most are often the ones whose uniform of choice is a t-shirt and worn jeans. As if that isn’t a uniform as well! Conformism masquerading as non-conformity, if you ask me.’2

Fashion and subversion in music is certainly not new, but what the ‘big suit’ achieves is on stage embodiment. The quadrilateral men’s business suit, which typically strives to abandon the body by rendering itself as a pristine two-dimensional image, an untainted ideal, becomes active and playful in Byrne’s performance. Suit and body move in an unusual and surreal animation, which reinforces a sort of humour. As Byrne says, ‘A friend made a kind of quip, […] “well, you know what theatre is – everything has to be bigger.” And he didn’t mean the clothes had to be bigger, he meant that the gestures were larger, the music had to be more exaggerated, on stage than they would in real life. But I took it very literally and thought, ‘Oh, the clothes are bigger.’”3 So the suit acts as both a juxtaposition of traditional theatrical devices and also as sartorial commentary. Reflecting more broadly on the power for a performer to use fashion as a tool creatively, culturally and socially.

  1. Grace Jones’ ‘One Man Show’, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNNmwIYllEM, 1981 

  2. Ganda Suthivarakom ‘ David Byrne – On Uniforms and Non-uniforms’ Vestoj, Issue No.1 ‘On Material Memories’, 2009 

  3. Josh Stillman ‘Q&A: David Byrne on the future of music and his new book, How Music Works’, Entertainment Weekly, http://shelf-life.ew.com/2012/09/10/ew-qa-david-byrne/3/, September, 2012