On May 4, 1959, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Autry and other musical luminaries sat down to formal dinners and golden statues in Los Angeles and New York simultaneously for the very first Grammy Awards.
“As I recall, no one objected to dressing black-tie back then, though like so much else, that would change eventually,” said Christine Farnon, who helped organize the first presentation and became executive vice president of the Recording Academy, in a short history on the Grammy website.
Change Grammy fashion did, evolving slowly over 60 shows into the wildest and wackiest red carpet of the awards season. By 1974, Cher’s navel was out, as good a barometer as any.
In the early years, tuxedoes and traditional evening gowns prevailed. David Bowie helped shake things up, simply by being David Bowie, in his orange hair phase. Liberace and Aretha Franklin added sparkle. Bette Midler once wore a .45 record album in her hair. Dolly Parton showed up decades ago in a bright pink pantsuit, before bright pink pantsuits were mild compared to what came later.
In those simpler times, through the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a whole lot of great big hair. There were Neru collars, Beatles in caps and Isaac Hayes boldly bringing it in huge bedazzled caftans. By the ‘80s, anything went and there was a glitter glove on one of Michael Jackson’s hands.
“When you compare it to other awards shows, you never know what you’re going to get at the Grammy Awards,” said Nwaka Onwusa, curator of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. “It‘s great that in music, everyone can be welcome no matter what you’re wearing. It doesn‘t have to be that tuxedo black tie situation all the time. Music has no boundaries and that’s the cool thing about it.”
A glance at some outrageous fashion moments at the Grammys:
Cher’s butterfly night
Before Cher went full-on Bob Mackie showgirl, she popped over to the 1974 Grammys with a huge green and pink crystal butterfly somehow affixed to one side of her head, her signature long, dark hair flowing down her back. Below that outsized sparkly insect was a tiny halter bandeau silk top in white with a matching huge butterfly suspended between her breasts.
The motif was carried over into the waist of her low-hung, swingy bottom half. It was a big bellybutton party. She had a long sheer jacket she sort of used as a shield in photos.
Rick James & Grace Jones
The year was 1983. That’s before Lady Gaga was born. The bad boy of funk, with his long braids — short strands in front — and the outrageous Jones had a really good time together mugging for the cameras at the Grammys.
He was in a shiny long-sleeve textured cardigan held together by a belt, paired with a studded bandanna and joggers. Jones wore an open weave vinyl-like tunic with spaghetti strands that left little to the imagination. On her head was an umbrella-shaped matching hat, on her hands long black gloves.
While we’ve lost James, Jones is alive today breaking fashion barriers.
Celine Dion’s rear end
You know how we see a lot of backsides on red carpets these days? Well, Celine did it back in 1993, thank you very much.
Her look was all black lace. It had long bell sleeves on the sheer outer dress and an average plunge to the neck. What it also had was a tiny black thong underneath. Dion showed it off, front and back, with a smile on her face.
She left her hair down and bedroom messy.
Jennifer Lopez does not-there green
In 2000, JLo welcomed the new millennium as a rising star. She showed up at the Grammys in a sheer silk chiffon Versace green dress with a tropical leaf and bamboo motif. The dress was Donatella Versace’s debut of sorts after the tragic murder of her brother, Gianni.
To say there was a plunge to the front of this dress is an understatement. It barely had a front at all, relying heavily on adhesive to keep it this side of wardrobe malfunction.
The open front went straight on down to just above the pelvic region, where a large citrine brooch, with help from smaller citrines, provided strategic coverage. It had long sleeves and skimmed the ground with a short train in back.
Before Lopez wore the dress, it was presented on a catwalk. Donatella wore it herself, at the 1999 Met Gala. Spice Girl Geri Halliwell wore it to the NRJ Music Awards in France about a month before Lopez. But Lopez made it her own, and changed the red carpet game as that plunge was copied for years to come.
Word is pictures of the dress were downloaded at such a frenetic pace that Google decided to create its searchable Google Image function.
Toni Braxton in goddess white
How does a stunner of a singer follow a stunner of a singer on the Grammys red carpet? In 2001, Braxton pulled a J. Lo when she wore a white silk jersey Richard Tyler dress, but not just any white dress.
She went all in on the hip-baring in a dress that had no sides, save a crystal-embellished piece of fabric that held the front and the back together. But there was hardly a back or a front to go with the no sides.
The halter front fell open to her navel. She used the ever-valuable doublesided tape to keep the top part in place. She was the talk around the water cooler the next day, especially on this issue: There was a thong involved.
Lady Gaga as good witch
It was at the 52nd Grammys in 2010 that Gaga went Jetsons, hitting the red carpet in a sparkly futuristic lavender dress by Armani Prive with suspended metal hoops encasing her body. She held a huge spiky star for photos. Her wig hair was a bright yellow ombre that appeared attached to the top of the corset-style dress. And Gaga had on those towering high platform shoes of which she was so fond.
The skirt of the dress was short-short in the front and stiffly opened to a ground-skimming length in the back, creating an oval shape that went nicely with all those hoops. She had fun striking poses that night, when she later won two awards, for best dance recording and best electronic-dance album.
Nicki Minaj and the Pope
In 2012, the singer-rapper walked the red carpet with platinum blonde hair, dressed in a scarlet red Versace cloak and attached hood. She was on the arm of an older dude dressed as the pope, high hat and all. There were ruffles below her high collar, beaded black embellishments and matching satin wrist gloves, lending an air of, what? A nun’s habit was mentioned.
A fews days later, Minaj explained her vibe that night, topped off with a performance that involved dancing priests, an exorcism and levitation. She said it was all part of a movie she was writing. OK then.
Pharrell’s really high hat
You know who deserved a Grammy in 2014? The Vivienne Westwood Canadian Mountie hat on the head of Pharrell, that’s who.
He paired the hat with a shorts suit and was the talk of the internet. The fast food chain Arby’s even tweeted at him: “Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back? #GRAMMYs,” because it was so similar to its logo.
Pharrell ended up selling the hat on eBay for $44,100 to benefit From One Hand To Another, his charity that helps children learn through technology and the arts.
The buyer? Arby’s.
Rihanna the confection
It was ultra-huge. It was bubblegum pink. It was RiRi’s 2015 tulle strapless Grammy gown.
The two-tiered dress by Giambattista Valli was dubbed “The Cupcake.” There was a girly innocence to it rather than her usual bad-girl edge. Detractors had some fun, likening the look to a cake topper and an ode to Glinda the Good Witch.
Word has it Rihanna found the gown on the internet after it was shown during Paris couture week.
Beyonce, an actual queen
February 2017. Beyonce was expecting her twins. She performed at the Grammys in gold, royal crown and neck collar in place.
Look closely at the body-hugging dress and you’ll see an embroidered portrait of Queen Bey herself smack in the center, above the navel.
Peter Dundas designed the gown and others she wore that night. They were his first under his own name after working for the Roberto Cavalli and Emilio Pucci brands.
Dundas told Vogue the dress took one week to embroider with 50 people working on it. Gustav Klimt was an influence, along with Art Deco motifs inspired by Erte. He said the lyrics from Beyonce’s “Love Drought” also came into play in the story-driven design. Sun rays symbolized the African goddess Oshun. Dundas added two cherubs on the hips dressed in ivy.
Bey won a Grammy for “Lemonade” that night and extolled the virtues of black beauty in her speech.