Saturday 18 August 2018

Thank you for the costumes - ‘We figured with our clothes, people would remember us even if we finished ninth’

With the Mamma Mia! sequel set to be the cinema sensation of the summer and 70s fashion making a comeback, Katie Byrne pays tribute to Abba's iconic style

Abba
Abba
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

There's a time and a place for white over-the-knee boots; ruffled trousers are a flagrant fire hazard and you might want to give the 'Super Trouper' disco poncho a miss for lunch with the in-laws.

But with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again arriving in cinemas tomorrow - three months after the fab four announced their comeback in virtual avatar form - it's time to accept that Abba have had more of an impact on your wardrobe than you might care to admit.

The Swedish quartet's outré fashion choices have never had the best reputation. In fashion circles, Abba was either a byword for bad taste or an outlandish option for a fancy dress party.

But with the 70s fashion revival in full swing - and with the Abba resurgence upon us - fashion lovers are starting to come out of the closet and admit that some of Abba's sartorial flourishes were… you know… kind of okay.

Björn Ulvaeus once said that Abba's outrageous costumes were designed to be tax-deductible.

In other words, he told his accountant that his white spandex catsuit was directly related to the nature of his employment.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

"In my honest opinion, we looked like nuts in those years," he added. "Nobody can have been as badly dressed on stage as we were."

But he seems to forget that Abba never set out to be trendsetters. They came of age in the 'go big or go home' disco era when the costume was just as important as the artist wearing it.

Fashion writer and stylist, Darren Kennedy, agrees: "Abba was a major cultural phenomenon and their impact can't be underestimated.

"They came at a time when video was becoming part of popular culture and it was the first time that a generation had such a visual influence."

Abba’s blue and purple jumpsuits aren’t a million miles away from the ones we’ve recently seen on everyone from J-Lo to Beyonce.
Abba’s blue and purple jumpsuits aren’t a million miles away from the ones we’ve recently seen on everyone from J-Lo to Beyonce.

Sure, their outfits were high camp - and highly flammable - but they wore them during a time when all self-respecting disco artists were hiring costume designers to make them look like intergalactic acrobats.

Anni-Frid Lyngstad knew costume designer Owe Sandström from her earlier work in the Swedish cabaret scene and he was hired, along with his partner Lars Wigenius, to make the band stand out on the Eurovision stage in 1974.

Sandström knew the power of theatricality and showmanship when he designed the group's Napoleon-inspired looks for their performance of 'Waterloo'. Lyngstad arrived on stage looking like a rodeo queen and the rest of the group like yellow-pack glam rockers, but as Ulvaeus later said: "We figured with our clothes, people would remember us even if we finished ninth."

He was spot on.

Abba's fashion represented escapism. It could be ironic, like the time they covered themselves in tinfoil for a photo shoot. And it could be avant garde, such as the metallic robes they wore on the 1997 tour, which wouldn't have looked out of place at this year's Met Ball.

Sandström thought of his costumes as "pieces of art" and while some may baulk at that statement, they can't deny that his extravagant creations have made a lasting impression on contemporary culture.

We can see the impact of Abba's costumes everywhere. The dramatic capes that Florence Welch wears on stage look like they were plucked straight off the 'Super Trouper' moodboard. Lady Gaga must have been at least partly influenced by their spandex leotards (she admits that their music has inspired her, after all). Even Beyonce has little accents of Abba in her stage attire - check out the outfits from her Mrs Carter tour and compare them to some of Lyngstad and Fältskog's more revealing costumes.

Abba's trademark white boots are often aped in Halloween costumes, but think back to the last few seasons of high fashion and you'll remember that the white boot has come full circle. Gigi and Bella Hadid put their best foot forward in Stuart Weitzman; Kendall Jenner wore the KG Kurt Geiger 'Strut' ankle boot for the better part of last year's Paris Fashion Week.

Abba's spandex leotards haven't gone anywhere either. Visit Burning Man, Glastonbury or the big clubs of Ibiza and you'll see at least a dozen women wearing Burnt Soul catsuits that bear a striking resemblance to the skin-tight apparel that Abba wore in the late 70s.

Gender-neutral fashion is also having a moment and the fashion pack have got themselves into a tizzy over 'progressive' labels like Vetements. But rewind to the 70s and you'll realise Abba were one of the forerunners of the trend.

Check out the photograph of Ulvaeus looking like the lovechild of a Mexican wrestler and an American flag, and don't overlook dark horse Benny Andersson, who liked to keep it real in a purple jumpsuit accessorised with dusty pink boots. (Fältskog had a matching rig-out.)

Abba's blue and purple jumpsuits (right) aren't a million miles away from the ones we've recently seen on everyone from J-Lo to Beyonce. As for the tiered denim ruffle flares in the Mamma Mia! sequel, well… that might be a bridge too far.

So where to get your Abba fashion fix this season? Tom Ford and Gucci's extravagant SS18 collections have plenty of inspiration for dancing queens, or for a more affordable option, try Rixo. The hugely popular brand, beloved for their retro-inspired prints, are leading the charge for AW18 with their 'Disco Daze' collection.

"The 70s was a pivotal era for fashion," says Rixo's Irish co-founder Orlagh McCloskey. "This disco-inspired collection celebrates an era where, whether day or night, maximalism and fearless dressing dominated."

The power suit trend is holding strong too. British designer Malcolm Hall designed Abba's made-to-measure suits; mere mortals could try Massimo Dutti. Or nod to their off-duty style in a draped gown, like Uterque's bright dress (left, €135, uterque.com)

Elsewhere, platform sandals are back in fashion (in fact, they never went away for Prada and little sister Miu Miu); flares have hit the high street once again and the feather-sleeved Zara blazer that is flying out of stores has echoes of Abba's capes.

Like it or not, Sweden's fab four will be making an impact on your autumn wardrobe. At the end of a documentary exploring Abba's fashion legacy, Sandström put it nicely when he said, "thank you for the costumes".

Irish Independent

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