an ode to chrissie hynde’s feral fashion sense
Writer Maggie Lange considers the seeming contradictions within The Pretenders front woman’s inimitable aesthetic.
Photography Steve Morley / Getty Images
Our favorite writers muse on their muses as we bring back the "My i-Con" essay series for the second year in a row. From Grimes to Grace Jones, read every heartfelt ode to personal style here.
I've spent most of my mid-twenties looking for a tank top that unites the ruggedness of "Middle of the Road," the charm of "Brass in Pocket," and the carelessness of "Night in My Veins." These songs are all by the Pretenders and Chrissie Hynde wrote all of them and she wore this type of tank-top when she sang them.
"Modest and arrogant," I said to describe Chrissie Hynde's look recently. A friend made the case that this is a categorical impossibility: "Arrogance is inflated performance of confidence, modesty is realistic or deflated public display of confidence." I agree it's a thin line. I also think Chrissie Hynde walks hard on it.
The lead singer of the Pretenders since 1978, she's synonymous with thick black eyeliner and rail thin jeans. Her style is standoffish and alluring. She's aloof but she's got bravado. It's skin-tight but shows very little skin. My going definition for flirtation these days is that it alludes to sex without assuring that it's a possibility. This is a captivating kind of tension.
Hynde's origin story starts at SEX (the store, literally everyone's origin story starts with sex the act, so we don't have to mention it) in London, where she worked on the shop floor to outfit the city's iconic punk scene before starting her own band.
Her look is not so small-minded to be a uniform, but there is a formula. She loves a cut-off tank, a loose-fitting white shirt, a pair of black pants, leather jackets. Let's start there. Then we can get into the frivolities: a red T-shirt, a gold leather jacket, big earrings, metallic footwear. These are adventures in confidence. I bought a pair of silver boots to quit a job once and they worked.
If you start with a grayscale base, the variations stand out. With Chrissie Hynde, the deviations are invariably bold. Like vintage photographs of Chrissie Hynde, my closet is 95% black and white and grey. Then! An attention-seeking slice of a red jacket, a tuft of leopard print shirt. It's like there is a violent entanglement in the closet, where a wild beast has bloodied up a scene in a black-and-white movie.
There are only a few elements at play, so each has force. It's a pair of black jeans that says: I don't suffer fools. It's a bed-head that communicates: Just because I'm low maintenance, that doesn't mean that I don't have a critical and discerning rigor. It's a tank top that makes your arms seem strong. It's hoop earrings that sneer. It's the drama of red chipped nail polish. It's a leather jacket that's perfect for demanding your way. Those jackets are hard to find, they demand you search for them, but once you've got yourself wrapped in it, you feel like you can get whatever you want. She was picky too: the first thing she says she did after she got the band together was acquire a pair of custom-made boots.
If you want to be sold on the Hynde's style, let me tell you this: she's got a comfortable look. Don't mistake that for the relaxation of lounge-wear; these clothes have a comfort that allows for mobility. They're freeing. They're durable, walkable, unwrinkleable.
Also, her arms are usually bare and her legs are covered. I don't think there are two kinds of people, but that's my preference too.
It's all a little feral. But there is intention. In her memoir, Hynde explained that her "party trick" for acquiring places to sleep while in a phase of under-employment was to wash windows in exchange for crashing. There is some effort there. A well washed window, like a perfectly careless style, is at its peak when you can't see any signs of effort.
Chrissie Hynde's approachability level is perfect for the shy person who stays out very late. We exist and we're usually conflicted about how social we want to be at all moments and we don't know if we're feeling fearless or bashful that day, so we need a style that lets us be both. Hynde's look has a don't-talk-to-me thing going on, but, you know, it's coy about it.
"The idea of trying to be sexy was repellant to me," she wrote in her memoir, Reckless, last year, "Something I'd never deliberately do." She wrote about a bad outfit incident involving a rubber skirt (my sympathies). "I never tried to dress sexy after that. Fuck that. Over-the-knee boots was the limit." That's a high limit, but it's strict. Hynde's look is strong but it deflects. If clothes are weaponry, her style is the shield.
Mistakes were made. Lacy fingerless gloves, vests, ties unincorporated into shirt collars. This lets me make my own mistakes, whatever they may be.
Her look doesn't have a shiny or glossy or a veneer; she's not creating a chill distanced irony with her look, it's just that her look is chill and distanced. She makes being bold congruous with being a little reserved. This is a person who wrote a raucous memoir, but wanted to wait until her parents had passed away to do it.It's modest and arrogant, it's an enigma, like her forehead under her bangs. What does it look like? How does she do it? It's a mystery achievement.
Text Maggie Lange
Photography Steve Morley / Getty Images