In “A Star Is Born,” Barbra Streisand’s Clothing Was a Source of Power
Gaga has won accolades for stripping herself down, but for Streisand, the never-ending rotation of great clothes was an expression of her creative control.
A bohemian look for Ester. Photograph via Getty.
One of the great outcomes of Barbra Streisand’s insistence on taking absolute control of her image in the 1976 version of A Star Is Born was—you guessed it—her image. The clothes in the film, which also starred Kris Kristofferson as a self-destructive rock star, are so prominent that they are a character in themselves. And as the end credits are scrolling, if you stick around long enough, you’ll see: “Ms. Streisand’s clothes from…her closet.”
Before the film was even made, Streisand’s then-boyfriend (and former hairdresser, who would also serve as a producer on the film) Jon Peters was supervising an effort to reshape her look. Babs was suddenly very blonde, very tan, very sexy, and very Hollywood. The new Babs was rocking skin-tight denim and hot pants and going braless.
Before Peters, Streisand was consciously quirky, though she generally fit within the classic style of the divas of previous eras. Her clothing, particularly onstage, skewed costume-y, like the garments were pulled from the closet of a musical theater cabaret. For her 1963 television appearance on The Judy Garland Show, Streisand styled her hair in a classic bob haircut and performed through several costume changes, including a white silk sailor suit—a piece that she continued to reference or even re-wear in subsequent performances throughout the decade. As Streisand made the transition into a 1970s major film star, however, her costuming became more suited to life offstage, though showed no less dedication to her instinct for playing a role. By 1973, her character in The Way We Were continued along a highly stylized Americana look, but she frolicked on the beach in knitwear, denim, and chambray, as if wearing the classic shapes, colors, and designs of a post-World War II woman were part of her script.
In Streisand’s A Star Is Born, Ester is a working-class aspiring artist, like Lady Gaga’s Ally in Bradley Cooper’s 2018 remake. But whereas Ally wears skinny jeans, T-shirts knotted into crop tops, and an unremarkable leather jacket, Ester begins her pre-stardom struggling artist phase in silk tops and luxe cable knit two-piece sets. Economic logistics aside, the clothes are one of the film’s best attributes, simply because a star is dressing as a star. (A star is worn!) According to the film history podcast You Must Remember This, one of the things that drew Babs to the film were the striking similarities between her and Ester—both successful songstresses, and both in high profile, tumultuous relationships. And as an executive producer on the film, she notes in the film’s commentary that with that power, she was able to pay special attention to how the characters were dressed. In the screen test footage for A Star is Born, she makes comments and shares personal anecdotes about how everyone’s looks came together and why she chose what for each scene. Gaga may have won accolades for stripping herself down for the role, but for Streisand, the never-ending rotation of great clothes was an expression of her creative control.
As a star, Streisand’s Ester had two fashion personae. First were the hybrid Bohemian and ethnic outfits— tight denim bell bottoms, suede platform boots, and funky shirts and vests—resembling female rock artists of the time such as Stevie Nicks and Chaka Khan. The layers of billowing fabrics and organic textures, like feathers and leather, maintained a feminine feel, and in a way this “earth mother” styling seems like part of Ester’s efforts to defray the threat of her increasing fame on her partner’s masculinity: his career descends as hers sky rockets.
But in her more triumphant and powerful moments—usually her performances, which Streisand demanded be sung live—she chooses menswear: three-piece Brioni suits in muted tones. If her “offstage” persona was the relaxed woman, her onstage persona was afraid to dominate. (Babs loved to challenge and play with gender dynamics, something she continued as a director in films like 1983’s Yentil). Adding further provocation to her experimentation with the femininity spectrum was the contrast between both of these looks and the standard uniform of the era’s male rockers: the simple graphic T-shirts, slim-fitting blazers, and funky trousers of men like Mark Bolan and David Essex. The versatility of her wardrobe speaks to her genre-transcending music, which becomes more rock ’n roll as the film goes on, but also the aspirational mass appeal of her character: she can literally do it all! She’s not being hounded by her label to represent an outdated idea of how a female musician should look (in contrast, Gaga’s Ally has her image entirely altered by her label).
Clothing set the standard for how a star of Streisand’s caliber could reinvent herself at the helm of a classic cinema story. With a sensational wardrobe, her new image was built into the narrative of the story. We are primed to root for Streisand’s new image as her Ester transitions from a nothing bar act into a literal rock star. The film, which was the highest grossing of 1976, helped her ascend to a new level of fame as a singer, actress, and filmmaker. Clothing certainly didn’t make Barbara Streisand the legend that she is today, but as her wardrobe work for A Star Is Born indicates, she knew well that fashion communicates to audiences in ways that other attributes cannot.