At five feet, three inches, 93-year-old acting legend Cicely Tyson may be a petite woman, but her presence has always been larger than life—as was the hat she wore to pay tribute to friend Aretha Franklin last Friday.
The ruffled and wide-brimmed black straw picture hat was instantly iconic, turning heads among viewers both at the service and watching from home, and instantly sparking dozens of tweets, praises, jokes and memes.
But all jokes aside, those of us who grew up in the church (or adjacent to it) recognize dramatic hats as a longstanding part of the black Christian tradition that birthed Aretha Franklin. Similarly, dramatic fashion statements are built into the fabric of Hollywood royalty. As Tyson is both an elder stateswoman of our community and an entertainment icon with a nearly seven-decade career, we’d expect nothing less.
But who created the look that launched a thousand memes? That distinction belongs to veteran milliner and designer B Michael, himself a legendary talent who has designed hats for Oscar de la Renta, Louis Feraud and the 1980s television hit Dynasty.
A graduate of New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, B Michael is also one of still too few black luminaries the fashion industry, evolving from his millinery work into designing couture and ready-to-wear collections over the course of his over-30-year career, as well as being a 20-year member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
He’s also amassed a very impressive and multigenerational roster of stars who’ve worn his designs on stage, screen and red carpet, including Beyoncé, Brandy, Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Lynn Whitfield, Valerie Simpson, Phylicia Rashad, Patti LaBelle, Nancy Wilson, Carmen de Lavallade, and departed greats Whitney Houston and Lena Horne, among others. And then, of course, there’s longtime client and close friend Cicely Tyson, whom he accompanied to Friday’s memorial as well as designing her hat, dress and gloves.
And what did the esteemed designer have to say about the inspiration behind Tyson’s unforgettable look?
“It was important to design something that would RESPECT The Queen of Soul’s Haute Style,” B Michael said in both an emailed statement and Instagram post. “Ms. Cicely Tyson, who is also royalty, wanted to give homage.”
We can certainly respect that.