Why Mitski Is Wearing a Swim Cap On “Be the Cowboy”

Her photographer tells us about the ’50s vibe she and the musician wanted.

by Emma Specter
Aug 24 2018, 6:00pm

If you’re remotely plugged into The Discourse, you’re already aware of Mitski’s new album Be the Cowboy.

Alternately plaintive and upbeat, the 14-track ode to hopeful loneliness can be heard leaking out of the Airpods of every wan, blunt-banged straphanger on the C train. Its cover art–which features Mitski clad in a white flowered swim cap, red-lipped and mid-eyeliner application–is also becoming an instant classic.

Modern though Mitski may be, swim caps like hers were all the rage in old Hollywood. Joan Crawford sported an appliqué cap in the 1934 film Chained, and Katharine Hepburn wore a plain white cap to marvel “My, she was yar” while floating in the family’s pool in her 1940 screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story. And of course, there’s Liz Taylor in the 1959 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Suddenly Last Summer, looking like a damn snack in a festive cap and cutout one-piece.

More recently, Miuccia Prada sent Miu Miu models down the Spring 2017 runway in swim cap-inspired headdresses, and legendary bathing beauty Esther Williams’s eponymous swimwear line currently sells floral-applique swim caps similar to the one Mitski sports on the Be the Cowboy cover. (The caps also make a memorable cameo in this NuvaRing commercial that recalls the 1952 Annette Kellermann film “Million Dollar Mermaid,” making contraceptive vaginal rings seem like a must-have poolside accessory.)

To get a sense of the method behind Mitski’s swim-cap madness, we spoke to Bao Ngo, the Brooklyn-based photographer who shot the cover for Be the Cowboy.

What was the inspiration behind Mitski’s swim cap on the album cover?

The initial inspiration came from the styling. However, I took the photo specifically so that I could use the cap. In the early stages of planning the shoot, Mitski sent me reference photos for the styling even though we didn’t have a stylist yet. But we already knew the clothing and accessories were going to be very 1940s-’50s inspired, so when I found this 1950s swim cap in the back of my closet, I thought it would fit the styling that we had already planned for. I came up with the idea for the cover once I saw the cap.

What about the red lip/eyeliner application?

Our makeup artist, Marika Aoki, applied the red lip and eyeliner. I knew Mitski was already going to have a full face of makeup on, but the bold red lip and bold eyeliner was Marika’s choice.

Was there an overarching theme that you/Mitski wanted the album cover to represent?

Mitski told me that [the album] was centered around an icy, repressed woman who was unraveling and trying hard to hold onto any control that she possibly could. I took that description and came up with a shot list (in addition to several shots Mitski came up with herself). Some of the photos were conceptual and some weren’t, but the ones that were, we didn’t discuss in depth prior to shooting. I think an image speaks for itself.

I felt intuitively that the cap with perfectly applied makeup was very glamorous, very ’50s, but also objectively a little peculiar. I thought of women who go to the beach in a full face even though they know it’s going to come right off; either that or they prevent it from coming off by just not going into the water. It’s controlling your image where it could be destroyed, or you choose to destroy it consciously by letting it wash away.

The makeup is so perfect and the implication that it could be gone in a moment I think is reminiscent of this unraveling. In this image there’s control but also loss of it—in the cap vs. makeup, as well as the direct gaze vs. stray hand with tweezers, and Be the Cowboy really explores this dynamic.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

be the cowboy