The Lenny Interview: Beth Ditto

The indie rock icon shares what inspired her mission to change plus size fashion forever.​

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I don't remember the first time I heard Beth Ditto's band, The Gossip, but I remember the first time I felt its life-changing energy. It was the summer of 2003. I was 19 and enjoying my first summer living by myself in Philadelphia — total freedom. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and after my work shift ended, I decided to sit on a bench in Rittenhouse Park and enjoy the weather. A man sat next to me on the bench and started chatting me up. I was having too good a time to assume my regular Get away from me stance. Then, somehow, he brought up my breasts, and suddenly I felt I was drowning in thick syrup that I couldn't make my way out of fast enough. I walked to the First Unitarian Church, where I was to meet my friends to see The Gossip and some other bands play, feeling like garbage. I was heavy with a guilt that was definitely not mine. Why had I let this happen? Then they started playing, and Beth was onstage, singing and dancing, and it was like she was personally pulling me out of the sludge. The more I got lost in the music, the more this man and his actions disappeared. By the end of the night, I was my own self again.

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I brought this up to Beth at the end of our conversation, and she immediately remembered the show. "It was the Unitarian Church, right? Thank you for being a badass, and fuck the world, man. I love that you were at that show," she said. And even though everything happened so long ago, I felt loved and supported. We talked about how we might both be too old for basement punk shows these days, but we miss them.

Now, with the launch of her new namesake collection, she is dressing all the coolest fat girls (grrrls?) around the world. The 21-piece collection includes a black liquid-lamé jumpsuit, perfect for dancing into the wee hours of the morning, a dove-gray short-sleeve shift dress with a little mock neck and a ruched butt that is very Indecent Proposal, and some graphic print separates that would seamlessly blend into any wardrobe, all in sizes 14 to 28. As further proof of her fierce independence — and perhaps as a call back to her early days in the punk rock/DIY culture — Beth produced her collection all on her own in Manhattan's Garment District. It's also a sign that this is not just a novelty line like other celeb fashion lines and Beth is in it for the long haul. We talked on the phone on a recent afternoon about fashion's intrinsic link with identity and why she feels like a mom whose kids have flown the coop.

Laia Garcia: Let's take it all the way back: who was the first person whose fashion you wanted to copy?

Beth Ditto: God, I was really little. I was obsessed with Miss Piggy. Obsessed. I just remember putting on gloves. You know those hair baubles that have a ball on each end? I would put those on my finger over the gloves so it looked like I had a ring on like Miss Piggy. I just thought she was so cool.

I remember I was a teenager in the '90s when the '60s were cool. I loved pedal pushers — now they're called capris — but you couldn't buy them anywhere. It was the middle of Arkansas. Me and my mom made a pattern out of a pair of my jeans. We made our own pedal pushers. I would spend so much time ratting my hair to look like Patty Duke or Priscilla Presley, or especially, still to this day, Mary Tyler Moore. It's a classic.

Then [everything] started transitioning into grunge, and I'm pretty sure I still had really huge bangs and a perm, which I thought was excellent. I loved it. It's still one of my favorite hairdos. It's the bouffant of that era — a backward bouffant.

LG: It's a classic but it's not a classic. It's like a weird classic.

BD: I think it's a classic with girls, like especially punks, I've noticed. We really love a black bouffant. I think it also happened because of Michelle Mae from The Make-Up. She really picked that and everybody just kind of latched on to her, too. Whether or not that's what she was thinking. There was also that Huggy Bear song, "I'm the girl with the bouffant hair," I think that we really latched on to that.

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LG: When you first realized that you were a lesbian, did that change your style in any way? I have a friend who, when she first figured out she was a lesbian, she started dressing differently, like the way she thought that lesbians should dress —

BD: Oh, I was the same way. Is she femme, your friend?

LG: Yes, she's femme! Then, of course, she was like, "Oh, wait, I can wear whatever I want." But I wanted to know how that realization came for you.

BD: I know exactly what your femme friend is talking about. It's really common with us. I remember as a teen, so far removed from everything in Arkansas, we had to really interpret what things were like. I remember I had really short hair in 1999, which is what I thought I should look like. I would shun makeup. Well, I would put makeup on, and I would wear wigs and things, but only in private. I felt like it was a sellout thing to participate [in the traditional performance of femininity] anyway.

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After I moved to Olympia, my best friend at the time was sitting behind me and watching me do my makeup. She loved to watch me do my makeup. She'd sit on the commode, and I'd be in the mirror. One day she was like, "Oh my God, Beth, you're a femme." I was like, "What?" I'd never heard that before. Then I remember being like, "Oh my God, that's what I am!" The funny thing is my best friend now is my wife.

LG: Amazing! I love that!

BD: That was when I was 18. That was big. She really opened my eyes. I never knew what it was. I'd never heard the word. [But I] definitely did that thing where I was like "Don't look too feminine," whatever that fucking means. You don't realize that sometimes you're not able to draw the line between when you're dressing for other people's comfort and pleasure and for society, versus [when] you're dressing in what you like and it's your expression, it's your gender. But really, I just loved makeup. It was such a passion, and I was feeling guilty for it, which is so silly.

LG: You're also prepping for a solo record, right? Is it strange to go back to music after you've been doing fashion and makeup? And is it strange to be recording without your bandmates?

BD: I love my bandmates. I love them very much. We had such a good run, and we were very lucky to have each other and to have what success we did have and live these alternate realities. It was just really incredible.

I'm turning 35 now. I turned 19 being in Gossip. It was like marriage. It was the longest relationship of my life. It was the longest job I'd ever had. It was the longest period of partnership of anything at the time. It's like being a mom, like you've already had seven kids or whatever, those are your albums, you know? You already made these babies and they're grown and now they're out of the house. Now you tend to go on and do something else. I've been doing that. It's not necessarily like "after fashion" or "before makeup." It's not like that. All that stuff has been in my life anyway. It's more ending the relationship with the band and starting over has been the hardest thing to do.

LG: I feel like when artists like to do a lot of different things, maybe have a fashion label and they're still making music, often people have an immediate negative reaction. But with you, it's more of a cheer section. It always feels so authentic.

BD: Well, I'll tell you what, I have no choice but to be authentic. I can't be anything else. You just got to do what you got to do. The world is so fucking sexist. It's so gross. It's racist and hateful. If you're any kind of thing but straight, white, and male, you are going to have a really, really big chunk of scrutiny. One, because there's a side that's really rooting for you. They really want to see you do amazing things. In that same vein and on that same side, there are a lot of constraints, and you have to do it the exact right way or you can lose favor with them.

There's that. Then there's the mainstream, do they get you at all? They don't really understand you. That's the thing. Maybe you're playing it safe. Or maybe your personality or your look or whatever it is speaks to them in a way that they can understand.

I never really wanted to have a life where I was driving a BMW and wanted to live in a mansion. Even playing MASH as a little kid, I was always like, "Apartment is fine, apartment is great! As long as it's not a shack, I'm just fine with that."

LG: Unless it's cute and on the beach, unless it's your side shack, not a main shack.

BD: No, no, no, we don't want a main shack. No main shacks! [Laughs.]

Another thing is I came from a family of seven kids. We grew up in poverty. Not just like a little bit poor, not just a little broke, not lower middle class, but struggling. I think that will really take you down a tick. It's important to relate to people on a normal level and not get too fancy.

I think that's why this clothing line can be really scary, to be perfectly honest. We're doing everything ourselves. We've had help from friends but not from banks. We did it on our own. Bare bones. Made in America thing. Made in the Garment District in Manhattan. It's a big deal. Zero compromise. That was the thing. It's expensive. We made clothes with quality fabric. None of it is shit fabric. None of it. With the shit fabrics comes the idea that fat women are meant to change, that someday they will find this "thin person," thought of as the real person. The truth is that we are who are and the way we are is amazing and completely valid.

The other idea is that we are worth having something quality and incredible. That not all fashion has to be disposable. You can invest in a piece and it can be the thing in your closet that lasts through years instead of following trends. It's time to make our own mark in fashion. I think there are a lot of incredible underground artists, like Chubby Cartwheels and Ready to Stare and Geek Junky. There are a lot of people that are doing really cool things. I have a fear that when my line comes out there will be scrutiny over the prices of it, but I can guarantee that the price of it is all because of how it's made, where it's made, and what it's made from.

LG: That's always the thing that many designers and labels say: they think plus-sized people won't spend the money on quality clothes, so why are they going to make clothes in those sizes?

BD: We are worth quality and we don't have to buy into this Forever 21 plus-size idea. Don't get me wrong, I wear a lot of Old Navy, I wear a lot of Forever 21. I would love it if there were something that I could have an option the way I bought it, so I felt good about it, it felt ethical.

To get back on my soapbox, we don't have the privilege of walking into any store, just seeing something in the window and trying it on and buying it. We don't have the privilege to be able to look at clothes and think about Where is this made? and Is this made ethically? We don't have that option. It just does not exist for us. I really want to get to the point where, whether it's me or someone else, there is the option of quality.

I'm on a mission. I'm telling you. Instead of buying 20 pairs of leggings that are going to fall apart on you for $15 apiece, I would rather buy a pair of $120 Eileen Fisher leggings that are going to last me and were not made in a sweatshop.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laia Garcia really misses shows at the First Unitarian Church, and also Wawa iced tea.

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