This post has been updated to reflect the 2022 release of the Bon Soir sessions.
Barbra Streisand wore a self-designed grey herringbone vest and skirt, paired with a delicate white chiffon blouse for her 1962 performances at the Bon Soir. A photo from these sessions immortalized this outfit forever when it ended up on the cover of The Barbra Streisand Album (1963).
This album peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts and went on to win four Grammy Awards. It is one of my personal favorites because Streisand’s singing is so passionate, raw, and unpolished. Her early unwavering drive to succeed unapologetically pierces through every note and makes each track unforgettable. As Streisand fans know, this album was originally supposed to have consisted of live recordings from three sessions at the Bon Soir that took place from November 5th-7th in 1962. They were attended by an invite-only audience, although guitarist Tiger Haynes recalled that the audience was paid. It was most likely a mixture of both industry and hired audience to really amp up the background excitement. Streisand was wowing crowds at the time in Broadway’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale and Columbia hoped to capture some of her electric live performance energy on these recordings. For various quality reasons, the recordings were scrapped in favor of a cleaner studio session. Though these early performances were archived up until the 2022 release, the outfit that Streisand wore at the Bon Soir lived on because one of the photos taken by Hank Parker ended up being used as the album cover’s key art.
Streisand had a long history with the Bon Soir. Her first appearance at the nightclub had been in 1960 and she had return engagements in 1961 and 1962. Most importantly, the Bon Soir had been the place she first met her manager Marty Erlichman.
The outfit that Streisand chose to wear for these sessions was designed by her. It featured a fearless clash of masculine and feminine that was rarely seen at the time. Similar women’s vests and suits really wouldn’t become popular until Yves Saint Laurent designed Le Smoking in 1966. As usual, Streisand was entirely unique in her style choices and ahead of her time. In one recording she can be heard joking with the audience that she is “wearing her boyfriend’s suit.” While we know this was a tongue-in-cheek comment, some stories have floated around that the herringbone fabric used to make it may actually have come from one of her boyfriend’s suits. This vest and skirt combo has been worn by Streisand in many variations throughout her career and has become emblematic of her signature style. Oddly, the one that caused the most controversy (dubbed a “Peekaboo Power Suit” by Anne Taylor Fleming in a scathing Op-Ed) was worn over thirty years later for Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Gala. When looking back at Barbra’s Bon Soir suit, it is easy to see the very early sparks of her developing fashion aesthetic.
Streisand had begun collecting antique clothing at the age of 16, and would wear her finds frequently at the nightclubs she sang at. In her 2010 book, My Passion For Design she recalled that at her debut Bon Soir show she wore a pair of antique shoes that she loved, but by the end of the evening the interior leather was completely burned out from the heat of her body. In regard to her early style, she also noted that “The press started talking about my clothes as if they were a gimmick. I thought, Oh no! I never meant to be distracting. So I went back to the thrift shops and bought very simple dresses. I also began designing my own outfits to wear onstage-full length slit skirts with vests made out of herringbone or pinstriped wool, which I paired with soft chiffon blouses. (There’s that dichotomy again.) It’s on the cover of my first album.”
In some of the full-length photos from the Bon Soir, we get a closer look at all of the little details in Streisand’s outfit. It was probably very hot to wear under stage lights, but the lightweight chiffon blouse beneath her vest likely provided a bit of relief. The look featured a fitted button-up herringbone vest that brings to mind a men’s waistcoat. There are princess seams running up each side that add a bit of personality. The matching skirt is gathered at the elastic waistband and falls straight. I would guess that the back of the skirt had a slit for ease of movement, though I have seen no photos that confirm this. The long-sleeved, white chiffon blouse features an eye-catching Peter Pan collar that is accented with a long Pussybow at the neck. These elements added a youthful and modern vibe to the look. The sheer sleeves have a slight puff at the shoulders and there is a slit at each cuff with a button closure. The only piece of jewelry worn with this outfit was an eye-catching oval-shaped ring with a dark center stone. Barbra completed her look with her signature side-swiped bangs and a hairpiece to help create her dramatic voluminous beehive.
Signatures of the attendees on this poster show that Streisand’s mom and sister were present to show support at her Bon Soir sessions.
Herringbone, which is most frequently used in menswear is identified by its extremely distinctive weave. It is named for the herring fish which has a skeleton that looks like just like the motif. Though it is often confused for a type of fabric, herringbone is simply a type of weave that can be found in fabrics ranging from tweed to wool. Herringbone is often called a broken twill weave based on the fact that, unlike twill, the pattern does not continue on a diagonal but goes in an opposite direction.
The herringbone pattern was used as far back as the Roman empire to make roads and driveways. It is still used often today in flooring, most often in a style of parquet. The motif can also be seen in Ancient Egyptian jewelry and antique Italian fabrics.
Streisand’s herringbone ensemble represents the unrestricted innocence and fearlessness that enveloped the early years of her career. This outfit is also special to me because it brings me back to my own early years of discovering Streisand’s catalog. Seeing it transports me back to the first time I held The Barbra Streisand Album, and then proudly displayed the record in my bedroom as one of my teenage prized possessions. To me, Barbra Streisand’s herringbone suit will eternally symbolize the transition of an ambitious Brooklyn girl into superstardom.