A Bohemian Rhapsody: The Fashion of Freddie Mercury

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Freddie Mercury once said, “I won’t be a rock star. I will be a legend.” The words of the late Queen frontman prove themselves to be truer now than ever before. Consistently hailed as one of the greatest voices in music by various major outlets over the years — from MTV to Rolling Stone and beyond — the “Somebody to Love” singer quickly comes to mind when listing artists who define entire generations. And with a resurgence of Mercury’s legacy embedding itself into pop culture, seen within the creation of a hotly anticipated Hollywood biopic decades past his untimely death, the musician has cemented himself as an iconic figure in rock music history. 

While he is often associated with the vigorous stomps and claps that characterize “We Will Rock You” or the outrageously erratic falsettos that charge “Bohemian Rhapsody,” much of Mercury’s success was due to his distinct stage persona, reigning supreme as an individual who mesmerized stadium audiences around the world. This was translated not only through the theatricality of his live performances but also by the immediate reception of his wardrobe choices, which diverted from the traditional image of a rock musician.

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As early as Queen’s first live performance in 1970 with Mercury officially a part of the lineup, the frontman would experiment with various costume choices in order to establish and reflect the sound of the band – he was hyperaware of their inherent regality from the start. From black spandex pants paired with floral jackets to diamond-studded bodysuits with deep chest cuts, Mercury’s onstage looks varied dramatically, yet never failed to surprise. Complete with his long hair at the time, Mercury’s looks of the ‘70s are now regarded as early celebrations of androgyny.

Many of Queen’s outfits during the era were made by cult fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who was responsible for some of Mercury’s most notable ensembles, including the pleated white, satin “batwing costume.” Rhodes recalled the night Mercury first came to her for assistance with bandmate Brian May, the two “clattering up three flights of stairs in their platform boots.”

Rhodes, who had limited experience with menswear design, was encouraged by Mercury’s lean towards the gaudy. Mercury had previously run fashion stalls in Kensington market before Queen and was well aware of the potential of the material he was working with. This passion never died even as the fame of the band rose dramatically — his love for the theatrics continued on in silver sequined catsuits, diamond-printed spandex and various leather military jackets. On his costuming, Mercury once said, I have fun with my clothes onstage; it’s not a concert you’re seeing, it’s a fashion show.”

This ideology was additionally reflected in Queen’s music videos as well. The 1975 debut of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video, which boasted a million-selling run during its first year, garnered the title of the most expensive single in rock history at the time. The band risked many factors on its production, focusing on experimental theatricalities, with Mercury clad in a white silk ensemble with silver jewelry and winged eyeliner. The video went on to be a sensation and is hailed as one of the best songs of all time by various outlets – and Mercury did it all the while effortlessly sporting black nail polish.

One of the more explicit allusions to Mercury’s sexuality was seen in the music video for “I Want to Break Free,” in which Mercury and the rest of the band members dressed entirely in female pin-up costumes — this was an early experimentation of drag, done by one of the most famous faces of rock in the era. Complete with a wig, hot pink earrings, a pink tank top, leather skirt and his now world-famous chevron mustache, the video was meant as a commentary against the repression of housewives in the ‘80s. The controversial video was banned by many US music stations for its play on gender norms and bringing ideas of open sexuality to the forefront of cultural discussion. Since then, the song has been hailed as an anthem by the LGBTQ+ community for its early attempts of denouncing dated gender roles and binaries, leotards and all.

In the ‘80s, Mercury underwent another style evolution – he cut off his long hair, became known for his thick mustache and began to embody a more masculine look onstage. He often wore jeans, Adidas Superstars and various casual tank tops and graphic tees when performing. Perhaps one of the most iconic looks that Mercury donned was among his most simple: the styling of the Live Aid concert of 1985.

Widely hailed as one of the greatest live performances in the history of rock music by television programs and various publication rankings, Mercury wore light-washed jeans with a simple white tank top and a matching studded belt and armlet when he sang what came to be known as “The Note Heard Around the World.” The benefit concert that raised relief funds for the Ethiopian famine hosted a lineup of Led Zeppelin, The Who, U2 and more of the biggest names in rock. But the image of Mercury whipping around a microphone with his spiked, BDSM-inspired armlet, remains supreme to the minds of viewers and critics alike.

While both the early exuberance and late leisure of Mercury’s styling reflects much of the shifting styles in gay subcultures between the decades, many also believe his decline in flamboyance was due to the diagnosis that ultimately ended his life.

Though Mercury is posthumously praised as a figure for the LGBTQ+ community, he never cared to openly define his sexuality. An article in Gay Times once said Mercury was “not afraid to publicly express his gayness, but unwilling to analyze or justify his ‘lifestyle’… saying to the world, ‘I am what I am. So what?’ And that in itself for some was a statement.”

In 1987, Mercury was diagnosed as HIV positive. He withheld his illness from the public, continuing to contribute to Queen albums The Miracle, released in 1989, and Innuendo, released in 1991, the year of his death.

His final live performance with Queen took place in London at Knebworth Park in 1986. As the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” rung out beyond a crowd of over 120,000 people, Mercury made his final appearance wearing a majestic red robe and a gleaming king’s crown, in all his regal glory.

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To this day, the legacy of Freddie Mercury remains cherished by musicians of all genres and listeners of all ages. Lady Gaga took inspiration from both his songs and fashion to inspire her onstage persona; the late David Bowie once praised Mercury’s individuality, saying, “Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest… he took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights.”

Mercury left a prominent impact in both the music and fashion spheres, boasting a career wrought with melodies distinguishable in seconds and an unabashed flamboyance in fashion that subverted masculinity within the rock genre. By openly straying from popular standard, he celebrated the experimentation of identity. With his signature chevron mustache and a fist in the air, the image of Mercury flaunting his individuality onstage left lasting impressions on artists in the music industry for years to come. •

“The most important thing is to live a fabulous life,” Mercury once said, “As long as it’s fabulous, I don’t care how long it is.”

by Zoe Judilla

Photography and Hair and Makeup by Sarah Stiles

Modeling by Cruz Rendon

Styling by Enrique Alarcon

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