The icon we knew as Aretha Franklin was a lot of things: musical prodigy, Queen of Soul, church girl, teenage mother (and possible abuse/rape survivor), Detroit native, shade-master and legendary diva. But while all of those titles may apply, there is one we often overlook: Aretha Franklin, in her own, over-the-top way, was a body-positive icon.
Hear me out on this—because chances are, we’ve both chuckled or raised eyebrows at Aretha’s fashion choices over the years. In her 76 years on this planet, our Auntie Re-Re (because she was our auntie long before our beloved Maxine Waters) showed a penchant for major fashion moments—and her tastes were never subject to age or size.
Whether wearing a size six or “none-of-your-business,” Aretha always wore what she wanted—“age-appropriate” or “size appropriate” be damned. She was a diva who not only clearly loved to play dress up, but was unequivocally aware of her own greatness; rightfully feeling deserving of the space she took up in the world—however much space that may be.
Because we would deal.
So yes, we would get braless moments, and cellulite, and tulle, taffeta and the occasional tutu, and sleeveless dresses and spaghetti straps well into her 70s. We would get a vivid array of wigs, hats, countless furs, and handbags sometimes worn at the piano and on the mic. Aretha was the best kind of black woman—the kind many of us grew up with; she was the type of black woman who knew her own worth and dared you to tell her any different.
And due to all her IDGAF glory, Aretha was a body-positive icon long before “body positivity” was even a thing. And aside from her incredible voice and enduring catalog, if we take nothing else from the legacy of the Queen of Soul, it should be the freedom (and yes, you should have read “freedom” in Aretha’s singing voice) to show up in the world exactly as we are, and as we see ourselves. And to demand respect, regardless.
Aretha Franklin recording at the piano at Columbia Studios in 1962 in New York.
Posed portrait of Aretha Franklin, circa 1963.
Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait circa 1964 in New York City, New York.
Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in circa 1965.
Aretha Franklin dancing for the cameras.
Aretha Franklin performs during a concert at Madison Square Garden on June 28, 1968 in New York City, New York.
Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait, circa 1968.
Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait, circa 1968.
Aretha Franklin on the Andy Williams Show, May 4, 1969.
Aretha Franklin backstage wearing an gold embroidered gown and holding a Grammy Award, circa 1970.
Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in circa 1970.
Aretha Franklin performs the song ‘Your Love Is Like A See-Saw’ with pop singer Tom Jones.
Aretha Franklin and Glynn Turman during their wedding, April 11, 1978.
Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in 1980 in Los Angeles, California.
Aretha Franklin at the 10th Annual American Music Awards, circa 1983
Aretha Franklin appears in concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on March 3, 1990 In New York City.
Aretha Franklin sings in front of the Lincoln Memorial January 17, 1993 in Washington, DC. to celebrate the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
Aretha Franklin at the Grand Opening of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, 1995
Aretha Franklin performs onstage during Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy Gala on February 22, 2003 in New York City.
Aretha Franklin performs during the 2003 BET Walk of Fame to Honor Aretha Franklin, Saturday October 18, 2003 in Washington, DC.
Aretha Franklin arrives to the ‘P Diddy’ Combs Annual White Party on July 4, 2004 in Southampton, New York.
Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the 59th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall June 5, 2005 in New York City.
Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Dream Concert presented by Viacom at Radio City Music Hall on September 18, 2007 in New York City.
Aretha Franklin arrives at the 30th Annual Kennedy Center Honors December 2, 2007 in Washington, DC.
Aretha Franklin performs onstage during the 2008 MusiCares person of the year honoring Aretha Franklin on February 8, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
Aretha Franklin sings during the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America on January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC.
Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center on December 2, 2009 in New York City.
Aretha Franklin at the 2010 Apollo Theater Spring Benefit Concert & Awards Ceremony on June 14, 2010 in New York City.
Aretha Franklin performs with the Philadelphia Orchestra on July 27, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Aretha Franklin performs during Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacularon May 17, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.
Aretha Franklin performs at Radio City Music Hall on February 17, 2012 in New York City.
Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the 10th Annual TV Land Awards on April 14, 2012 in New York City.
Aretha Franklin performs at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on July 25, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Aretha Franklin performs onstage during the ‘Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives’ Premiere Concert during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City.
Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Commemorates Its 25th Year And Honors Founder Sir Elton John During New York Fall Gala on November 7, 2017 in New York City.