How The B-52s Crafted a Legendary Look Out of Wigs
Talking with the two women of The B-52s about teasing their incredible style out of beehive hairdos.
The band circa 1980. Photograph by Lynn Goldsmith for Corbis Historical via Getty Images.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the formation of The B-52s. Straddling the line between of New Wave and punk, The B-52s’ sound is a striking mix of melodic dance bangers topped with overlapping harmonies and vocal idiosyncrasies. The same terms can be used to describe their style: it’s visually melodic, with several eras overlapping in their hairstyles, silhouettes, and accessories. And of course, it’s quirky. The big beehive bouffant, a staple hairstyle for the band’s female members in its earlier days, gave the band its name: “B-52” was Athens, Georgia slang for the coveted updo—inspired by the name of a US Air Force bomber introduced in the 1950s—and was an eccentric enough term to encompass the band’s essence.
The front women, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, managed to hone in on a style that heavily referenced the ’50s and ’60s, combined with elements of futurism: lots of reflective materials, lots of silver, and sky-high hairstyles that resembled satellite towers. Establishing an iconic image early on worked in their favor as the band started to grow and build a fan base in the early ’70s. On stage, they celebrated an exaggerated version of femininity with a touch of drag, and a touch of Science Fiction B-movie. It wasn’t your standard nihilistic punk image, full of rage, but it was still pretty punk.
For Pierson and Wilson, this was an opportunity to experiment with different textures, patterns, and shapes. Wigs were the starting point in the band’s style, and the clothes followed the gaudiness of their hair. They became a hair band before “hair bands” were a thing. One of the standout images of their career is the cover of their debut album, The B-52’s. The band stands smack-dab in the middle of a Crayola-yellow background, with Pierson in a white blouse with mountainous, billowing ruffles, and Wilson wearing a brassy brown helmet of a wig and a Teddy Boy chic getup.
“Those were the thrift store days. Kate and I were being playful on the photo shoot, so we switched wigs,” said Wilson. “She wore the blonde one and I wore the golden-brown helmet hair. In the beginning, we weren’t really polished, but to me, those were some of the best days. We were just starting out and having fun in thrift stores. We were very playful with fashion, kind of on the arty side.”
“We just did what we wanted. There were never any rules,” said Wilson.
Inspired by the lavishness and absurdity of filmmaker Federico Fellini’s work in the 1960s, Pierson and Wilson mimicked the fantasy they saw in films like Juliet of the Spirits. “There were big hats and giant sunglasses—this incredible fashion taken to an absurd degree,” Pierson explains. “Fellini was the epitome of Italian style taken to the max.”
“We were also very influenced by Vogue in the 1960s under Diana Vreeland,” she continued. “And I used to imitate the makeup of the ’60s models with crisscrossed eyeliner and white on the inside.”
Wigs, then and now, are an on-stage staple for the women. Towards the late 1970s, around the time of the band’s inception, women all around Athens were still sporting beehive hairstyles. Early on, the wigs started out as a joke—the band would dress up, crash parties, and guzzle free beer. But then the band’s drummer, Keith Strickland, had a waking dream that solidified The B-52s as a band and the hairstyle as their lasting image. “He envisioned three women, all playing organs, and they all had bouffants,” said Pierson. “Someone said, ‘Who’s that?’ in his dream, and then someone said, ‘That’s The B-52s!’”
“It was a trend in the south, those big bouffants, but it was also a way of kind of transforming a negative, militaristic bomber jets image into something beautiful and peaceful,” she continued. “That was really the inspiration when we called ourselves The B-52s.”
Their absurdist styling often started with the hair. “In the first show we did, we got these fake fur pocketbooks that were white, and we turned them upside down into these white afros,” Pierson said. “Keith wore a little red wig and we wore all black. It was very punk, but still very stylized.” They weren’t aiming to be glamorous, but their exaggerated femininity departed from contemporary aesthetic codes for female-led bands, the denim- and leather-clad women like The Runaways, Debbie Harry of Blondie, and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders.
“I love looking at photos from back in the day,” Wilson said. “When we got more money, I found a wig lady named Phyllis who was so creative. She would listen to my ideas and we would put our heads together to come up with some crazy hairdos.” Phyllis became something of a collaborator with the band, creating their most iconic wigs: the bow-tie wig seen in the “Song For A Future Generation” music video, the “stairway to heaven” wig (aptly named by Pierson) worn frequently on stage, and the infamous birdcage wig made out of chicken wire, now on display at the University of Georgia’s Special Collections archive.The band performing in 1996. Photograph by Mick Hutson for Redferns via Getty Images.
Towards the end of the 1980s, upon the release of their album, Cosmic Thing, Pierson and Wilson decided to update their style so that fans could focus on the music. Whereas some bands remain fixed with a particular look, it was natural for The B-52s to evolve into something fresh. The girls started working with Todd Oldham, Norma Kamali, and Julia Gerard for tour styles and in music videos—brands that were already in harmony with the band’s aesthetic, yet still fashion conscious. While on tour with Culture Club and The Thompson Twins this summer, the hair is still bleached and definitely still high, and Pierson and Wilson are still emblazoned in the kitsch of days past. “I still have a good time,” Wilson said. “People still really appreciate the costumes. It’s kind of nostalgic.”