After learning she had been adopted, Debbie Harry would often dream her real mother was Marilyn Monroe, herself a foster child who became the quintessential Hollywood bombshell, radiating an intoxicating blend of vulnerability, seduction, and charm every time she looked at the camera.
“I felt that Marilyn was also playing a character, the proverbial dumb blonde with the little-girl voice and big-girl body, and that there was a lot of smarts behind the act,” Harry wrote in Face It: A Memoir. “My character in Blondie was partly a visual homage to Marilyn, and partly a statement about the good old double standard.”
At 14, Harry began dying her hair, going through a dozen colors but always returning to timeless glamour of platinum blonde. In 1965, Harry, then 20, moved to New York City and rented an apartment on St. Marks Place for a mere $67 a month. She worked as a go-go dancer, Playboy Bunny, and waitress at Max’s Kansas City before she found her true calling: rock star.
In 1974, Harry joined Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones in the Stilettos, before guitarist Chris Stein came on board. Stein soon became Harry’s longtime partner and together, the two formed Blondie in October of that same year. The group took its name from the catcalls Harry would receive on the street. “I didn’t want to be portrayed as a victim,” Harry told The Guardian. “At the end of the day, it is all about a war between the sexes. But I wanted to be more playful about it.”
And play with them she did. Harry channeled the sex goddess energy of Marilyn Monroe and the rugged edge of 1970s New York to create a refreshingly raw take on glamour, glory, and glitz. Their music, which deftly combined the sounds of the city — punk, disco, and hip hop — and Harry’s sultry looks would help take the group to new heights.
Photographed by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Leibovitz, Bob Gruen, Janette Beckman, and Roberta Bayley, some of Harry’s most iconic images came from Stein, who effortlessly brought out Harry’s innovative sense of style. The legendary zebra mini-dress that Harry wore for Creem magazine was actually a pillowcase that her landlord found in the trash. Harry transformed it into a dress and posed in front of a zebra backdrop as Stein snapped away in their makeshift photo studio.
Harry began collaborating with her upstairs neighbor on the Bowery, a young design assistant to Halston named Stephen Sprouse, who put the iconoclastic star in an asymmetrical diaphanous dress for the 1979 music video for “Heart of Glass.” Sprouse, who soon launched his own fashion house that epitomized downtown chic, became Harry’s favorite designer and stylist until his death in 2004.
As Blondie’s star soared, Harry became a fashion icon. Her trademark locks, black sunglasses, vintage t-shirts, slinky outfits, bright colors, and ability to mix thrift store finds with high fashion pieces came to define an elegant rebel style whose appealed crossed the generational divide.
“The way I feel about looking good is that it has to be stylish and it has to look nice, but after I get it on and I’m out there having a good time I don’t want to think about it. I like to get it right and then forget about it,” Harry told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year.
Yet Harry is never one to miss an opportunity to turn the pressure up. In 1999, she attended the Q Magazine Awards in London in a skin-tight black dress covered with 3,000 blunted double-edged razor blades by New York-based jewelry and clothing designer Michael Schmidt. As Harry told The Guardian, “Fashion should always be a little dangerous.”
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